Desertification is supposedly one result of catastrophic global warming – but reversing desertification through intensive agriculture is not high on the list of the “solutions” proposed by politicians and pundits in Washington and Geneva. Creating new markets, not destroying existing ones, has been the modus operandi in both Chinese and Israeli desert reclamation efforts.

Writing in Smithsonian magazine in 2017, Lorraine Boissoneault relied on University of Arizona geologist Jessica Tierney to confirm that the abruptness of transitions from green fields to deserts can happen without human activity. On the other hand, Boissoneault noted, archaeologist David Wright attributes at least some desertification to overgrazing practices by ancients (that in many places are occurring even today).

In Wright’s view, “We are a keystone species and, as such, we make massive impacts on the entire ecological complexion of the Earth. Some of these can be good for us, but some have really threatened the long-term sustainability of the Earth.”  Indeed, land management is even today a key player in efforts to re-green the world’s deserts.

Israel and China have been hard at work at this for at least six decades, and both countries have generated impressive results. More recently, other countries have joined the effort to reclaim desert lands through afforestation and other means – but despite the progress, there has been little mention of reversing desertification as a means of climate alteration.

Greening the Kubuqi in Inner Mongolia

Let’s start with China. Sixty-four years ago (in 1955) China began efforts to reclaim desert land and make it suitable for farming. An early answer was the “straw checkerboard,” discovered accidentally when a worker stuck straw into the sand. Even today Chinese workers are reclaiming vast areas by this method.

But a newer, perhaps even more promising technology has been developed by Chinese soil scientists working in the Kubuqi Desert in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The Chinese People’s Daily (August 10, 2018) reported that, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the government, as well as the joint efforts of local people and enterprises, the Kubuqi desert has experienced a historical change in beating desertification through afforestation.

The article adds that the success of Kubuqi should be attributed to the unique concept to increasing incomes for local residents through afforestation. Over the past several decades, about 6,000 square kilometers of sand have been tamed, creating ecological benefits worth more than 500 billion yuan, providing jobs for one million people, and lifting over 100,000 people out of poverty.

People’s Daily said the plan was for China to establish an environmental governance system in which government takes the lead, enterprises assume main responsibility, and social organizations and the public also participate.

The desertification control of Kubuqi is thus guided by government policies, invested by enterprises, participated by local farmers and herdsmen, and promoted by continuous scientific innovation. This unique model has brought ecological, economic and social benefits to farmers and herdsmen, making them the biggest participants, the strongest supporters and the largest beneficiaries of the desertification control. It is a model with Chinese characteristics that attaches same importance to both ecological and economic development.

People who have worked to reverse desertification believe that the economic benefit created by the afforestation in the area is comparable to the ecological results. The market-oriented method is vital to the success of the region’s desertification control. Without markets, the enthusiasm of the enterprises could not be fully motivated; without industry, sand control could not be sustained.

Greening the Negev in Israel

Israel, a much smaller country with a much smaller (Negev) desert, nonetheless tackled greening its desert shortly after being granted its independence in 1948. The Israeli company Netafim invented modern drip irrigation technology in the 1960s. This allowed the precious and scarce water resources of the desert to be used at extreme limits to grow crops.

A 1987 article in The Christian Science Monitor written by Jonathan Auerbach reported that, “Mirage-like, acres of colorful vegetables ripen in the hot sun. But more remarkable is that the crops are genetically engineered and irrigated with super-salty, `brackish’ water from large aquifers beneath the Negev.”

Auerbach called Israel’s dramatic greening of the Negev with brackish water “a technological and biological breakthrough” that “portends a revolution in the management of land and water resources in desert environments.” By 1987, the previously “uninhabitable” Negev was already home to 445,000 Jews and 55,000 Bedouins, and more than 250 thriving agricultural settlements.

Even in 1987, Israel was using solar technology in conjunction with desertification reversal efforts. A solar-powered computer from Motorola Israel, Ltd., automatically “fertigated” the fields. A local farmer explained that, “It’s like farming by eye dropper: A supply of fertilizer and brackish water is dripped into individual plant roots through thin plastic tubing – an anti-evaporation method developed by Israel in the 1960s and now used throughout the world.”

Indeed, 32 years ago, quietly bridging the political barriers, 10,000 Israeli brackish water specialists were training agronomists and villages in 54 countries around the world — many without diplomatic ties to Israel. Israeli farmers were helping Navajo families in Arizona’s Painted Desert stretch their scant water resources. While the Negev contained 300 billion cubic meters of super-salty brackish water, even larger deposits were estimated to lie under the great Saharan tracts of Africa and in the third world, where drought and hunger are prevalent and food supplies inadequate.

Today, the Negev is smaller than it was 50 years ago. It remains a major contributor to Israeli agriculture but also a proving ground for newer technologies aimed at reclaiming even more of the desert for human use. While in the 1950s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion predicted the Negev would one day be home to 7 million Jews, the numbers have increased from half a million in the 1987 to 700,000 today.

Greening the Sahara

As Andy Coghlan reported in Earth in October 2006, African farmers have been reclaiming the desert, turning the barren wastelands of the Sahel region on the Sahara’s southern edge into green, productive farmland.

In Niger, tree planting has led to the re-greening of as much as 3 million hectares of land, enabling some 250,000 hectares to be farmed again. The land had become barren in the 1970s and early 1980s through poor management and felling of trees for firewood. Beginning in the mid-1980s, farmers in parts of Niger began protecting them instead of chopping them down. The change came after the government turned trees from a liability to an asset by ceding their ownership to the farmers who planted and nurtured them.

Dutch scientist Chris Reij at the time had hopes that the “Oasis” initiative to reclaim deserts, launched at the From Desert to Oasis symposium in Niger that year, would spread to Mali, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. And it has, to one degree or another.

Of course, the Greens want to get into the act – and, as usual, with Big Plans that make little economic sense. Recently, as reported by Laura Geggel in Live Science, scientists proposed that massive solar and wind power installations could help green desert areas in the Sahara. University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Yan Li and his team, writing in Science (September 7, 2018), claimed that such installations could increase rainfall (by increasing humidity) especially in the Sahel, and thus increase vegetative cover.

Li and his colleagues reported that previous modeling studies had shown that large-scale wind and solar farms could produce significant climate change at continental scales. We are talking covering more than 3.4 million square miles of the Sahara, with wind farms generating about 3 terawatts and solar farms 79 terawatts of electrical power a year – “much more energy than is currently needed worldwide,” Li said.

Greater nighttime warming would take place because wind turbines can enhance the vertical mixing and bring down warmer air from above,” the researchers wrote in the study. Rain also increased as much as 0.01 inch per day, on average, in areas with wind farms, the researchers found. “This was a doubling of precipitation over that seen in the control experiments,” Li said.

The practicality of such an operation – which would generate far more energy that the world needs but in locations far from any practical power grid that would transmit this energy for human use – and its huge costs indicate that this technique might not be utilized in the near future. [But it does acknowledge that wind farms INCREASE local temperatures.]

Meanwhile, a Dutch company, Groasis B.V., argues that “once, most deserts were green, and the real cause of their existence and status now, is humanity itself.” The company states that, in many countries desert reforestation efforts occur with expensive and capital-intensive methods that often require subsidies to be stable. Groasis agrees with the Chinese and Israelis that markets are the real key to successful desert greening. Instead, they argue, “the problem should solve itself by developing a principle where an investor, NGO, or government can have a good return on investment by reforesting the deserts. ROI – not subsidy – is the key.

Perhaps Americans are not that interested in greening our own deserts because already we produce massive amounts of food in our fertile lands. But two factors make this a false security – the slow desertification of already arid lands within our borders and the environmental damage caused by the dumping of nutrients from midwestern farms into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet that cause massive dead zones every year in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet perhaps the more important lesson for Americans to learn is that technologies that rely on subsidies are never going to be sustainable. That, and that it might take hard work to accomplish the goals of reversing desertification, but the results can be massive.

As Shea Gunther reported in Mother Nature News in 2013, “for every huge desert you show me, I can show you an area that was covered with life sometime in the not-too distant past.” The Sahara, he notes, was a lush place just 6,000 years ago, and the Arabian desert was once home to a large number of shallow lakes that supported a diverse community of animals, including hippos and water buffalo. Our own Mohave Desert was once marked by lakes and streams fed by retreating glaciers and sustained by wetter weather patterns.

Climates change locally over time, whether or not due to any human activity. But humanity can, it has been shown, profitably reclaim desert areas by focusing on return on investment – not just throwing money at a problem. This principle of course applies to just about everything else – though you might hardly know it if all you knew you learned in an American classroom.


  • Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."