Cashmere, desertification, goats and dust storms

Written by  //  December 26, 2006  //  China, Environment & Energy  //  Comments Off on Cashmere, desertification, goats and dust storms

28 December 2006

Today, China’s grasslands, the world’s third-largest, are turning into deserts. In just five years, from 1994-99, the Gobi Desert expanded by an area larger than the Netherlands, according to the U.N. Environment Program.

ON THE ALASHAN PLATEAU, China – Shatar the herdsman squinted into the twilight on the ruined grasslands where Genghis Khan once galloped.
He frowned and called his goats. The wind tasted like dust.
… With all the grand ways to measure the impact of China’s ascent – the mountains of exports, the armadas of oil tankers – there might seem little reason to take stock of cashmere. Yet the improbable connection between cheap sweaters, Asia’s prairies and America’s air captures how ordinary shifts in the global economy are triggering extraordinary change.
Cashmere production primer
Cashmere is combed each spring from beneath the coarse “guard hair” of the outer coat of Capra hircus, the goat. It takes two or three animals to produce a sweater, twice that for a sport coat.
About 70 percent of the roughly 15,000 tons of cashmere produced a year comes from China. Alashan Plateau, near the Mongolian border, produces the world’s most expensive cashmere.
… China had an average of five dust and sand storms per year during the 1950s , 14 in the 1970s, and 23 in the 1990s, mostly derived from Alashan.
A 1998 storm that began in China and Mongolia caused health officials in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia to issue air pollution warnings.
… The country’s enormous herds of cashmere-producing goats have slashed the price of sweaters. But they also have helped graze Chinese grasslands down to a moonscape, unleashing some of the worst dust storms on record. This fuels a plume of pollution heavy enough to reach the skies over North America, including Washington state.
China’s demand for resources has proved strong enough to turn its grasslands into a dust bowl, and it has driven illegal logging into prized tropical forests and restaged a risky Great Game for control of vital oil supplies.
… It’s impossible to say how much any single product contributes to China’s air pollution. But the spike in demand for cashmere is taking a toll on the soil, air and water in China as well as the U.S. – a cost that never appears on any store’s tag. And many consumers are unaware of the link.
Straddling the Mongolian border, far from China’s throbbing cities, the Alashan Plateau produces the world’s most expensive cashmere, that downy underlayer of a goat’s hair that sells for at least six times the price of ordinary wool. Side by side under a microscope, Alashan cashmere makes a single human hair look like rope.
… But something in Alashan has gone wrong.
Shatar called his goats once more, and the animals trudged into view. Their wispy coats fluttered in the wind. They limped up a hill and slumped to the ground around him. They were starving.
… This stretch of China’s mythic grasslands, one of the world’s largest prairies, is running out of grass. The land is so barren that Shatar and other herders buy cut grass and corn by the truckload to keep their animals alive. Goats are so weak that some herders carry the stragglers home by motorcycle. Shatar expects most of his goats will live 10 years, half the life span of their parents.
The animals’ birthrate is sinking, too. Shatar once had 100 new goats each spring. This year he got 40. Even the cashmere has begun to suffer. Hungry goats are sprouting shorter, coarser, less valuable fleece.
… So many cashmere plants and other industries have opened in Alashan that authorities must ration water, forcing each factory to close for days at a time. Herders are forgetting the names of grasses that have vanished as their goats have helped denude the land.
… Just down the street from Alashan’s cashmere factories, bright yellow sand dunes rise from the horizon.
Without grass and shrubs to hold the dunes in place, the deserts are expanding by nearly 400 square miles a year. The land, it seems, is reclaiming itself from the people.
Making the plains bloom
In the 1950s, the father of modern China, Mao Zedong, urged his people to open the western frontier and make the plains bloom. Near Shatar’s home, migrants arrived in 1956 and established the town of Wuliji. They dug wells and opened a factory to make wooden tables and chairs. Within a decade, they had chopped down all the local trees, and the factory closed. …
By 1982, recurring droughts plagued Inner Mongolia, straining already arid lands. Still, national leaders pressed ahead with further development.
… But details as seemingly insignificant as the shape of a hoof or the style of eating were changing the fragile grasslands.
… The goats have stiletto heels,” which break up the delicate plants that hold the dust in place, said Martin Williams, an authority on desertification at the University of Adelaide in Australia. …
Goats also are expert foragers.

“They graze down to lower levels and pull up stuff, where a camel would be browsing,” Williams said. “The goats nibble at the bark around seedlings which transports nutrients to the plant, so once that bark has been damaged, the plant will die.”
Across Inner Mongolia, the number of goats has soared tenfold from 2.4 million in 1949 to 25.8 million in 2004.
[Globalization of dust storms and pollution]
… In the 1950s, China suffered an average of five dust and sand storms each year; in the 1970s, the average rose to 14, and in the 1990s storms struck 23 times each year, according to a 2005 study by the Asian Development Bank. That study found that for the past decade, Alashan has been the source of most sandstorms originating in China.
A storm in 2002 forced 1.8 million South Koreans to seek medical help and cost the country $7.8 billion in damage to industries such as airlines and semiconductors, the state-run Korea Environment Institute said.
… “We had one storm in East Asia which we called the perfect dust storm,” said Barry Huebert, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii. “There are good images of it following over the Pacific as a yellow plume. When it got to Colorado, it reduced visibility enough to make the national news. It continued east, and the last measurement was in the Canary Islands” off the west coast of Africa.
What scientists call trans-Pacific transport is an airborne highway of dust and pollutants.
Coal is the main culprit; about 70 percent of China’s soaring energy needs are met by coal-fired power plants. Many private homes also burn coal, combining to give China some of the world’s highest emissions of sulfur dioxide, soot and other pollutants.
The goats play an important role as well. Dust from the animal-ravaged grasslands of Alashan is snatched by wind and sent east, where smokestacks frost it in a layer of pollution. Together the noxious brew reaches the U.S. within five days, where it can combine with local pollution to exceed the limits of healthy air, said Rudolf Husar, an atmospheric chemist at Washington University in St. Louis.
Of most concern are ultratiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer. …  Asian dust already accounted for 40 percent of the worst dust days in the Western U.S. in 2001, according to a study by researchers at NASA and Harvard. Despite efforts to reduce emissions, a top Chinese environmental official warned last year that air pollution could quadruple within 15 years because of the rapid rise in private cars and energy use in China.
Chinese environmental authorities recognize the damage contributed by overgrazing and are struggling to stem it. They have stitched massive checkered straw mats into the surface of the desert, dropped seeds from planes and planted millions of trees nationwide. Nothing has solved the problem.
The hidden cost of the cashmere sweater By Evan Osnos
Chicago Tribune

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