Herdsmen in Dalad Banner of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, North China, have long suffered from sandstorms. A gust of wind could force people to close their eyes. Sand buried large areas of pasture.
During the worst desertification in the 1980s, more than 100 families had to leave their homes in Jiefangtan Town at the edge of the desert in Dalad Banner.
More than a decade ago, scientists came and started spraying a green liquid on the desert step by step every summer. Gradually, the landscape changed. First came a crust-like cover. This grew thicker, and then the sand stopped moving.
The sand gradually turned into soil, attracting moss, lichens, grass and animals. The soil became thicker, and the vegetation returned.
The hero of this transformation was algae, one of the earliest plant forms to emerge on earth more than 3 billion years ago.
Algae can withstand temperatures up to 60 degrees centigrade, and ultraviolet radiation and drought, said Liu Yongding, a researcher at the Wuhan-based Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who has studied algae for over 40 years.
The ability of algae to live in the desert inspired Liu to fix the drifting sand.
Under natural conditions, it would take more than 10 years for desert algae to form a crust.
Liu led his team to select the best algae species from samples collected across China, and innovated technologies that could generate a crust in one year.
Almost 400 million Chinese are affected by desertification, which accounts for 27.3 percent of China’s total land area. More than 7.72 million hectares of arable land have been degraded by desertification, and 670,000 hectares of farmland and 235 hectares of grassland have become drift sand or desert.
“We started this research more than 20 years ago without any financial support, but we persisted because we see the potential and the need of the country,” said Liu, 74.
“We can’t turn all deserts into oases, as deserts play a role in keeping the earth’s heat balanced. We aim to control desertification and restore the soil,” he said.