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Throughout centuries of farming, animal grazing and deforestation, the
earth’s natural resources have been exhausted. Deserts are encroaching into
previous lush areas and water is becoming alarmingly scarce.
Our soil is depleting 13% faster than it can be replaced, and we’ve lost
75% of the world's crop varieties in just the last hundred years. Over a
billion people in the world have no access to safe drinking water, while 80%
of the world’s fresh water supply is used for agriculture.
Even from space, the visual scale of the destruction is both
disheartening and sobering. Add to this travesty the fact that the world’s
population is expanding by a billion people every 12 years.
On a photographic assignment of the 640,000-square-kilometer Loess
Plateau in North-Central China in 1995, cameraman John Liu witnessed the
ravaging effects of man’s ignorance and greed. But he was amazed to discover
that the mindful, purposeful efforts of local Chinese residents had
rehabilitated a stark desert area the size of the Netherlands into a lush,
He wondered if similarly devastated landscapes had once been vistas of
lush, thriving vegetation that include waterfalls, rainforests and fertile
valleys – before several thousand years of exploitation had stripped the land
of every natural resource.
The epiphany Liu experienced spawned his provocative film, Hope in a
Changing Climate, which he posted on the Internet. You could say the results
have gone viral …
'What Happens When Humans Don’t Understand How Ecosystems Function?'
As Liu witnessed the negative trend being reversed around the Loess
Plateau, he discovered that not only can damaged ecosystems be rehabilitated,
and that similar remediation can restore other parts of the world, but that
the pathway for accomplishing it is fairly simple.
But the first order of business is to understand how it happened in the
first place. It often begins with several thousand years of relentless
grazing of domestic animals on mountainous slopes until there’s nothing left
but barren ground.
Rains that may have restored the land erode, carrying fertile topsoil
down the hillsides, effectively removing any chance for new growth to emerge.
On the Loess Plateau, millions of tons of powder-fine silt were swept down
into the Yellow River, not only obstructing its flow, but causing massive
flooding and the river’s new name: China’s Sorrow.
On his travels, Liu noticed the same scenario of cumulatively encroaching
desert land where it had once been fertile.
“The lands are exhausted. They allow hundred of thousands of sheep
and goats to walk across here, and any green thing that sticks up its head is
food, and they’re just walking around here getting everything. Well, you
can’t let them do that any more. They’ll have to stop… that’s what’s
destroyed this area. If that doesn’t stop, you won’t be able to fix this.”
Greening the Desert – Can This Be Replicated in Other Parts of the World?
This same trend in Jordan prompted the government to take action. Working
with civil engineers and scientists, Liu sectioned off areas to allow the
land to rest for three years. In an amazingly short time, grass began to
appear. A plant species last recorded in the 1800s and thought to be extinct
emerged on its own.
“Grasses develop perennial root systems that spread, encouraging
microbial communities living and growing in this microclimate that’s
created,” Liu explained. “Then you won’t have direct sunlight hitting, and UV
radiation sterilizing this microbiological habitat. Then, everything will
change – you’ll have a cumulative situation where there’s always vegetation,
organic matter and biodiversity.
“You can see the relationship between hydrology and vegetation and
biological life. That’s the basis of the air and the natural water system.
It’s how the atmosphere and the hydrological cycle were created and how they
were constantly renewed. …If we emulate those and don’t disturb them, we can
live in the Garden of Eden.”
Eden Restored: Strategy-Inspired Green Resurgence
Centuries of vitality-sapping farming in Ethiopia have destroyed nearly
every inch of vegetation, leaving wide swaths of bone-dry desert. Heavy
flooding has etched deep gullies into the land, sweeping topsoil downward and
away with nothing to halt its progress. With not even a drop left for farmers
to water their crops, their animals or themselves, the ensuing drought and
famine has been catastrophic.
But in just 6 years, villagers have planted indigenous trees and
vegetation, transforming the severely eroded terrain. Rainfall now absorbs
into the ground, feeding a clear stream that flows year-round, aided by the
cover of dense vegetation. This has saved the region from desert-induced
annihilation and instilled hope for a future of continued sustainability.
A thousand miles north in Abraha Asfaha, another miraculous resurgence
has taken place. Where five years previous, heat and wind had induced
drought, a government program instigated relocation for local villagers, who
were given permission to set aside and remediate the land as the Chinese had.
Now, villagers find water at the bottom of their wells, in spite of poor
"In the ravines they built small dams which are now fed by
underground springs… Rain that fell weeks ago slowly seeps through the
subsoil, replenishing the supply of water. 'The land has become fertile
again,' the village chief reports. 'There have been enormous improvements.
Our fruit trees were shriveled up, but now they’re growing again. There’s
even a larger number of species. Those are really positive results. We now
have food security. Our children can go to school. We have a better life. We
no longer need to ask the government for support, thanks to the changes that
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