Why China is heading for environmental catastrophe

China's rapid growth has created an environmental time bomb. And with major cities frequently suffering 'yellow outs' - toxic sand storms - the future is, quite literally, dark.

That is how a friend of mine described it. He was talking about what happened in Beijing, where he'd gone on business, in April.

The sky suddenly turned a jaundiced hue. The capital city of the People's Republic of China was quickly shrouded in a thick yellow dust.

The streets emptied, the airport closed, the traffic slowed to a crawl. People with respiratory problems struggled for breath as a monster struck...the wind-dust tempest known as Feng Chenbao...the yellow dragon.

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Feng Chenbao was once believed to be a portent of 'chaos under heaven' in the Middle Kingdom signalling the prospect of famine, pestilence and anarchy. And today, Chinese agriculture is indeed facing the mother of all crises. A lethal combination of global warming, drought, reckless farming practices, and mass irrigation has turned vast swathes of land into salty wastelands and desert.

China's crises: toxic sandstorms

Every year between March and June, Beijing regularly suffers from the yellow outs' of Feng Chenbao. These huge plumes of toxic grit are born in the Gobi desert during the dry and windy season. They form a chocking pall as they pick up heavy metal particles and carcinogens, such as dioxins, as they pass over China's industrial regions.

Each spring, they hurl millions of tonnes of sand not just at China but at North and South Korea and Japan as well. Indeed, the Korean Environmental Institute puts the damage caused in Korea alone at nearly $5bn a year, and reckons nearly 2 million people become ill during the sand storm season.

The storms do not stop in East Asia though. They often make it all the way across the Pacific to the western United States, and have been known to make it as far as the Atlantic travelling a full halfway around the world.

This is now a tremendous problem. According to the United Nations Environment Protection Programme there are now five times as many toxic sand storms blowing across northeast Asia each Spring than was the case in the 1950s, and it's worsening further with increasing desertification in China. In total, a third of the world's arable land is already being affected.

China's crises: desertification

Why is China turning to desert? The process is nothing new in itself. In the 4th century BC the philosopher Mencius wrote about it and its human causes, including tree cutting and over-grazing. But the rate at which China and India are growing rapidly creates huge problems for global agriculture.

It is widely known that poor people increase their consumption of meat at a greater rate with each increase in income. This puts increasing demands on arable land.

Cows bred for meat are much hungrier and thirstier than the grain that goes into bread or rice. According to the BBC, a kilogram of grain-fed beef needs at least 15 cubic metres of water. A kilo of lamb from a sheep fed on grass needs 10 cubic metres. By comparison, a kilo of cereals needs only from 0.4 to 3 cubic metres. But it takes 12 kilos of grain for each kilo of feedlot beef.

So it is not enough to produce incrementally more food for each new person on the planet. The world must now produce exponentially more food for each new person because of increasing wealth in the developing world. So far, the solution has been the so-called "green revolution". Increasingly sophisticated fertilisers and more productive strains of crop have enabled the world's farmers to keep pace with its increasing population.

However, at base, the green revolution has relied on over-use of scarce water resources to grow crops on already dry land.

China's crises: drought

I can't stress enough the risk of drought the developing world faces. If the world's water were compressed into a single gallon, only 4 ounces would be fresh. Of that, only two drops would be easily accessible and only one of which would be for human use. From that single drop, more than 90% goes to agriculture and industry.

What's more, new strains of wheat and maize may improve crop yields, but they are a lot thirstier than older varieties. That's increasingly counter-productive as much of the world turns arid as a result of climate change. These crops are supported by irrigation sourced from non-replaceable underground water reservoirs alongside the widespread use of new dam projects. This is having a dire effect on global water supplies, yielding yet another source of global and geopolitical disruption and crisis.

So the spectre of a global water shortage of biblical proportions is due less to leaky pipes and over-use of garden hoses than to the green revolution. For example, the Saudis have spent over £20bn pumping water from an underground reservoir to supply a million hectares of land in the desert to grow wheat. For every tonne of wheat grown, the government supplies 3000 cubic metres of water or over three times the norm for wheat cultivation. And it all comes from wells that are not being replenished by rainfall.

A third of all irrigation systems across the world use such underground water. Yet while these one-off sources are pumped dry, farmers in India's rain starved Gujarat region insist on raising dairy herds...so they can use 2,000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk!

Agricultural crisis in China and elsewhere

In short, the world's agricultural system is beginning to warp, threatening the global trading mechanism and raising the spectre of widespread famine. Since 1984 world grain production, for example, has failed to keep pace with world population growth. In the space of 20 years it's fallen from 343kgs per person to 303kgs.

Meanwhile, a startling 12 million hectares (30m acres) of farm land becomes un-farmable an area roughly half the size of the UK.

Few think of China as a desert nation but that's what it's becoming. According to the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology just 7% of China's land mass is now supposed to feed a fifth of the world's population.

The arable land is concentrated near the east coast as the Gobi desert encroaches from the northwest. And a 'Great March East' - reminiscent of Mao's forced 'Long March' - could begin as the rural poor invade the cities of the East and South...cities that are already creaking as they try to cope with the current influx of people from the country.

There are undercover reports of tens of thousands of protests in the Chinese countryside, where many impoverished and increasingly desperate farmers spend more time clearing away sand than farming. They are unable to scratch a living.

Some local officials are hiring gangs of thugs to quell these protests. There is near panic in official circles in China, and not just because these dust storms and pollution in general may blot' out the showcase Olympics in 2008.

There looms the much more serious prospect of 'chaos under heaven'.

By Michael Orme for The Daily Reckoning. You can read more from Michael and many others at www.dailyreckoning.co.uk