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INNER MONGOLIA, September 23, China Daily -- The Kubuqi Desert, the once-barren land in the Ordos Plateau, is turning into an oasis - after three decades of efforts in desertification control.

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The outdoor scene of the Kubuqi Desert Ecological Science and Technology Center in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Sept 20, 2017. [Photo by Sun Wanming/Chinadaily.com.cn]

The desert, the seventh largest in China, was the source of frequent sandstorms that also afflicted Beijing, 800 kilometers away.

But with the coordinated efforts of local government and enterprises, the participation of farmers and herdsmen, with focus on the role of science and technology, Kubuqi has witnessed remarkable progress in ecological restoration.

More than 6,250 square kilometers of the Kubuqi desert have been reclaimed in the last 30 years; rainfall in Kubuqi soared to 456 mm in 2016, compared with the less than 100 mm in 1988, and the number of sandstorms fell from 50 in 1988 to only one in 2016, according to a UNEP report.

Meanwhile, the greening efforts have also lifted about 102,000 people in the area out of poverty.

Ordos' Kubuqi model was widely lauded at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which just wrapped up in Ordos city earlier this month.

Its success in fighting desertification, experience in pioneering eco-restoration and developing eco-economies in desert conditions offers a solution for the world to tackle desertification.

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Photo taken on Sept 19 show one section of the Kubuqi trans-desert highway. [Photo by Sun Wanming/chinadaily.com.cn]

Government's anti-desertification efforts

In the 1990s, the Ordos government was asked to prioritize the development of vegetation construction, while giving full play to the leading national and local ecological projects, with efforts to research and develop various sand control technologies.

In this effort, the government decided to divide the desert into two by building a 100-km highway across the desert, and encircle it with trees and grass, and then tackling the sand patch by patch.

The Elion Resources Group took the lead in constructing the first Kubuqi trans-desert highway in 1997. To date, five highways have been built, stretching 343 kilometers, connecting Kubuqi to the outside world.

Along either side of the highways, the land is supplied with electricity and water to grow trees, grass and herbs. Also, a 242-kilometer ecological greenbelt was built through artificial planting and large-scale aerial seeding to protect the desert's central oasis.

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Photo taken on Sept 20 show the root of a licorice plant is exposed to the surface. [Photo by Sun Wanming/chinadaily.com.cn]

Various sand-treatment methods invented by enterprises

Over the years, enterprises in Ordos have continued to invent and modify their methods and techniques in tackling desertification.

One of these attempts, planting licorice in a square patch, was adopted to fix the drifting sand and improve the soil. The licorice, an important traditional Chinese medicinal herb, also provides extra income for the locals.

"I couldn't imagine before that I can earn 6,000 yuan ($900) per month," Wu Zhihua, 60, a local farmer, said with excitement.

The Elion Resources Group provides targeted poverty relief for farmers like Wu, by allowing them to plant licorice on their own land. The farmers can get licorice seedlings for free, and the company would buy back the grown plants at market price.

This year, over 5,000 people are expected to benefit from the poverty relief program.

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Photo taken on Sept 20 shows a PV power station in Kubuqi desert. [Photo by Sun Wanming/chinadaily.com.cn]

Another initiative of harnessing the desert involves adopting photovoltaic (PV) technology. Elion has built a 110 megawatt (MW) photovoltaic (PV) installation in the Kubuqi desert.

The ecological PV generators are the company's creative attempt with the goal of sand curbing, farming, breeding, generating electricity and poverty relief.

The locals have installed PV generators to produce electricity, while the shade under the generators provides space for undergrowth. The grass growing under the generators can also be used to feed the livestock, such as sheep and chickens.

Local farmers and herdsmen are employed to maintain the panels by doing the farming and breeding work under the generator, as well as the cleaning of PV panels.

The ecological project has helped more than 1,000 locals shake off poverty, with their annual income increasing by 10,000 yuan.

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A worker drills a deep hole in the sand with an auger in Hanggin Banner, in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Sept 19, 2017. [Photo by Sun Wanming/chinadaily.com.cn]

In the efforts to reforest the Kubuqi desert, the Elion company also explored several "minimally invasive techniques" to reduce the damage to the soil structure.

"We have adopted hydraulic planting, auger planting and drone planting methods," said Sun Yongqiang, deputy general manager of ecological development at the Elion Resources Group.

"Auger planting takes less than 20 seconds to plant a tree. This method doesn't affect the soil structure and will keep moisture in the sand," he explained.

In areas with enough groundwater, hydraulic planting method is more efficient. Its survival rate is above 90 percent, compared with a 10-percent rate when using the traditional shovel-digging method.

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Zhang Xiwang talks about his tree planting experience in a village of Ordos city in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region on Sept 20, 2017. [Photo by Sun Wanming/chinadaily.com.cn]

Individual and team efforts in re-forestation

Forty-five-year-old Zhang Xiwang has been planting drought-resistant willow trees in the Kubuqi desert for more than 10 years. 

Talking about his experience in planting trees, Zhang said he has even discovered a skill to improve their survival rate - by planting them near hidden sources of underground water.

There are more than 400 teams like Zhang Xiwang's that go around planting trees, with more than 10,000 people being involved.

Re-forestation efforts in the Kubuqi desert have transformed the livelihoods of more than 100,000 farmers and herdsmen.

Statistics from the local government show that the per capita net income of the 100,000 farmers and herdsmen living in the Kubuqi desert and its surrounding areas has reached 14,000 yuan last year.

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