YE HUAIMING struggles up a steep hillside to inspect a three-year-old apple orchard in Ansai County, Shaanxi Province, his feet sinking into the dry, fine soil as if it were sand on a dune.
"Can you taste the grit?" Mr. Ye shouts to a visitor over a wailing breeze. "The wind blows every day here. If you stay for a month, your skin won't be so smooth."
Ye is one of two Chinese engineers overseeing World Food Programme (WFP) Project China 3223, one of the most successful single efforts so far to reverse centuries of environmental degradation on China's loess plateau.
The $10.5 million project, which covers Ansai and two other counties along the watershed of the Xingzi River in northern Shaanxi Province, began in January 1989.
The goal of the five-year project is simple: to reduce the severe soil erosion in the area by persuading local peasants that planting trees and terracing land can increase their income.
"This way, the peasants will have enough to eat and wear," Ye says, "and we will conserve the land."
In Ansai, more than 6,000 families are contributing labor to the project in return for a daily ration of imported wheat. Their efforts have raised grain yields and increased the per capita net income by 25 percent to $37.
The project's success has won acclaim from China's government and the World Bank. Using Project 3223 as a model, the World Bank is preparing a plan of vast scope, called the Loess Plateau Project, to combat erosion on the loess plateau, a stretch of cliffs and gullies in north central China inhabited by more than 70 million people.
The World Bank project, the biggest of its kind, would cost $200 million to $300 million, with the bank financing 50 to 60 percent. It would cover eight river basins in the provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, and Shanxi, says Robert van der Lugt, deputy chief of mission of the World Bank in Beijing.
"We estimate that the project will begin by 1995, but it could go much more quickly," says Mr. Van der Lugt. Beijing is "excited" about the plan and is expected to complete the feasibility studies for it this year, he says.
Controlling soil erosion in China is an immense but urgent task. Erosion already affects more than 15 percent of the country's territory, and its scope is expanding at a rate of 250,000 acres a year. More than 60 percent of China's poverty-stricken counties are located in areas damaged by erosion.
Since the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127), generations of Chinese settlers have scavenged the plateau to meet their growing needs for food and fuel, depleting its forests and pasture land. The destruction continued through the 1970s, when Mao Zedong urged peasants to reclaim more land for grain production.
Stripped of trees, the region is scoured by dust storms for 30 to 45 days a year.
In some areas, whole villages have been buried in sand and dust. Millions of tons of the soft loess are washed off the plateau by rain and flushed into the Yellow River and its tributaries each year.
The natural devastation is striking in Ansai, where 94 percent of the arable land is affected by erosion. Much of the farmland is on hillsides that retain little water. Droughts are common, and with only 540 millimeters (21 inches) of rainfall a year, grain yields are sparse.
The WFP project is tackling erosion in two ways. On the less productive, sloping land, peasants no longer grow crops but are planting trees, shrubs, and grasses. On the better land, the peasants build terraces to increase crop yields and retain the soil.
Soil erosion experts say it will take the toil of many generations to rejuvenate the devastated land.