China's program of turning marshland into farmland has backfired into a major environmental disaster, and the United Nations University (UNU) has stepped in to help, together with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Their first joint venture will be to establish a series of ecological research stations.
A tentative joint program has been worked out after a visit to Heilongjiang Province --the area producing one-sixth of China's total commercial wheat yield -- by scientists brought together by UNU from 10 countries.
Nearly 5 million acres of forests and swamps have been reclaimed in the Sanjiang Plain, in the northeastern part of the country, since the 1950s, leading to a sharp drop in rainfall, more severe wind erosion, and declining soil fertility.
The visiting specialists were told that the local water table had dropped nearly eight feet at some places. Nature had shown a frightening ability to react to changes imposed by man. After a sandstorm, whipped by winds approaching 50 m.p.h., the ditches along farm roads were filled with precious black topsoil from nearby fields. Elsewhere, thousands of acres of wheat seedlings were swept away and buried.
The earth's land surface transfers water back to the atmosphere through evaporation and plant transpiration. The land reclamation scheme, originally intended to enable China to reduce wheat imports, may well have interfered with both these vital processes.
China's own scientific community is well aware of the dangers, yet it must find a way to increase food production. Despite all efforts to limit the birth rate, China is realistically expected to add at least 200 million to its present huge population in less than two decades.
At present, only 1 to 15 percent of the country's 3.69 million square miles is cultivated. But population pressure increases demand even for agricultural land of marginal value.
Natural disasters disrupting farm production regularly affect vast populations in China. This year, the worst drought in 37 years in the north of the country (near Peking) and the worst flooding in 26 years in the south (near Shanghai) have affected more than 20 million people. Several big national and international projects are soon to be launched with help from the UN system to restore the agricultural industries.
There is therefore no question of halting the land reclamation project. Indeed, the primary task of the UNU scientists is to contribute to the development of guidelines for future reclamation.
Dr. Richard Odingo, a Kenyan geographer and senior officer of the UNU natural resources program, told the Chinese hosts: "We have not come as teachers. We want to try to work together on common problems. China has much to teach us, and we are here to learn from you."
The new research stations are to gather environmental data for use in setting up guidelines for development. The studies are intended to enable the scientists to slow and, they hope, to reverse the process of land degradation at the Sanjiang Plain. They also hope they can apply what they learn in China to other places around the world where land reclamation programs are under way.