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China Blizzard Of Clamities*

In Inner Mongolia, a Blizzard of Calamity

Loss of Grasslands May Be Causing Unusually Severe Storms

Herdsman Chaoketu, 39, waits for his feet to be amputated. (Philip P. Pan The Washington Post)


By Philip P. Pan

Washington Post Foreign Service

Sunday, January 21, 2001; Page A30

ABAG QI, China -- It began last winter with a blizzard that buried this region under an unusually thick blanket of snow. Then a summer drought parched the land, turning green prairies a dusty yellow brown. The plague of locusts came next, consuming much of what grass stubble remained. And in autumn, cyclonelike winds tore up homes and tossed small goats into the air.

Now nature has inflicted another catastrophe on the unlucky herdsmen of Inner Mongolia's vast Xilin Gol grassland. A deadly snowstorm struck as the year began, leaving behind a frigid moonscape dotted with herds of sheep frozen into ice statues, homes buried in a pale yellow mix of sand and snow and nearly a half-million people short of food in temperatures more than 60 degrees below freezing.

None of the elders here can recall a storm so devastating, much less such an awful string of misfortune. And as residents begin to tally their losses, many are asking whether they somehow brought this series of natural disasters upon themselves.

"It's as if nature is taking revenge on us," said Biligung, 39, a herdsman who lost a quarter of his flock of 400 sheep to the storm and a large patch of his face to frostbite saving the rest of his flock. "We're not scientists, but we've never seen anything like this. . . . I think it has to do with what we've done to the environment."

Located along China's northern border with Mongolia and Siberia, this region is no stranger to snow. But the storm that began on New Year's Eve and continued for three days whipped sand as well as snow into the air, a blinding combination that herdsmen said they had never witnessed before.

They blamed the sand on one of China's most serious environmental challenges, the steady transformation of grasslands into deserts from overgrazing, clear-cutting of forests and other man-against-nature development policies. Each year an area about the size of Rhode Island turns to dust in China, threatening to leave millions of families with nowhere to go in a crowded country where arable land is already scarce.

The government has made stopping the desert a national priority, especially after Beijing was choked last spring by dust storms carrying sand down from the north. Prime Minister Zhu Rongji even warned that the country might one day be forced to move the capital if the deserts continued their march toward the city.

The government has tried to slow the expansion of the desert by marking land as off limits to herders and replanting trees and grass in arid areas, but local officials and scientists said the series of disasters in Inner Mongolia will surely set back these efforts.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Song Yuqin, an environmental scientist at Beijing University. "These disasters make people poorer, and then they try to clear more land or raise more livestock. That only contributes to desertification, which destroys their land and makes them poorer still."

Song said there is little evidence that overgrazing is causing the disasters in Inner Mongolia, but he said such activity is making naturally occurring droughts and snowstorms worse. And many local residents agree.

"The snow we've seen has always been white, but this was yellow snow. It froze quickly on the animals -- and on me," said herdsman Chaoketu, 39, waiting in a hospital for his blackened, swollen feet to be amputated.

He said he left his home during the storm to check on his sheep and cattle, and on his 73-year-old father, who lives about 200 yards away. But after taking only a few steps into the cold air, he realized he had made a terrible mistake.

Surrounded by swirling sand and snow, he could barely see his hands in front of his face and quickly became disoriented. When he couldn't find his way back home, he decided to continue walking in a straight line. A day and a half later, he walked into the wall of another herdsman's home.

"I didn't even see it before I hit it," he said.

Others were not so lucky. Two children froze to death while walking home from school. A mother and her young daughter perished while trying to retrieve heating fuel located just yards from their house. A teacher died in a van stranded in the snow. And several herders succumbed while trying to save their livestock or sleeping in their traditional felt tents.

At least 39 people died in the blizzard, the Chinese Red Cross said, though the figure is expected to rise as reports come in from more isolated areas.

Major roads in the affected regions have been cleared and relief convoys are getting through, but smaller roads leading to the vast majority of the 2.2 million people in distress remain difficult to traverse without the help of tractors, which local officials say are in short supply.

The blizzard left behind hauntingly beautiful vistas of desolate, snow-covered hills, but also eerie flocks of sheep, cattle and horses that froze to death while standing. Others died huddled together in the corners of their pens. Some remain buried in tall drifts of snow, with only a head or a leg sticking out.

Local officials said perhaps 10 percent of the livestock in the hardest-hit regions -- hundreds of thousands of animals -- were killed in the storm, and many more could die before winter's end.

The snow is three feet deep in parts, but although it is only several inches thick over much of the land, that is still enough to bury the grass. Livestock depend on that grass, because herders do not have enough feed in storage to last until the spring thaw, officials said.

"The grass used to be so tall that the wind would blow and you'd see sheep and cows hidden below," said Han Yunshan, 55, who spent 24 hours in the cold trying to keep his 800 sheep from collapsing. "But now, the grass is just a few inches high, and even a little snow is a threat."

One relief worker estimated that as many as a quarter of all the animals in some areas could die, a devastating blow to families already struggling because of previous disasters. More than 100,000 children have already dropped out of school because their parents can no longer afford to send them, according to the state-run media.

Chinese Red Cross officials estimated that more than 400,000 people are short of food. Unless help is provided in Abag Qi, one of the counties most severely affected, almost half the population of 20,000 will run out of food in three to six months, officials said.

The government has begun sending relief shipments and promised to help herders purchase new livestock, and it has also appealed for domestic and overseas aid. But many residents are worried that nature will continue to be cruel to them.

"If these disasters keep coming, I don't know how we can survive," said herdsman Wang Yu, 29, who lost two-thirds of his flock of sheep in the storm. "There's too much livestock and not enough grass and water. Last year, we planted grass, but it didn't grow. . . . What else can we do?"

(Original Len: 7600 Condensed Len: 7883)

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