China’s Belt And Road Initiative To Speed Up Desertification?

By Dr. Faith Chan, Dr. Pengfei Li, Dr. Juanle Wang 18 August, 2020

To prevent further desertification, XUST's Dr. Chan, Dr. Li & Dr. Wang recommend China lead mitigation strategies for the BRI

BRI is significant, accounting for 64% & 30% of the global population & GDP; but its development will likely escalate desertification; already majority of economic corridors are in arid regions
Compounding the threat is that BRI focuses on building infrastructure, which will reduce green areas; need to implement climate change adaptation & desertification mitigation strategies
China with the UN can take the lead; start by promoting transboundary conservation of dryland & semi-dryland environments; BRI's projects should follow best practice environmental planning

China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI); also known as “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) is going to be the largest infrastructure development program in 21st century. President Xi Jinping of People’s Republic of China initiated his vision for the BRI that will transform the transnational socio-economic development strategy for the next few decades that involves over 65 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, America and Oceania (CPC news, 2013).

BRI = 64% & 30% of global population & GDP

The BRI program accounts for 64% and 30% of the global population and GDP across with terrestrial and maritime routes (Huang, 2016). This policy will establish several Economic Corridors (ECs) across Asia, Europe and extensively towards Africa, such as the Eurasian Land Bridge Economic Corridor (ELBEC); China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC); China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC); and China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CIPEC).

At maritime environment, the initiative proposed to focus on jointly building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC) for smooth, secure and efficient transport routes connecting major sea ports along the Belt and Road (see below figure).

BRI has potential implications for escalating desertification, especially in dryness regions

Through taking advantage of these ECs, the governments will develop infrastructures (e.g. roads, railways, ports, industrial parks) (Belt and Road Portal, 2017). However, currently the BRI has been focused on the socio-economic and geopolitical implications, but the program has potential implications for escalating desertification, especially in the dryness regions and areas along the ECs of the BRI.

Desertification” is not new to us, as the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) defined as, “the diminution or destruction of the biological potential of the land, which could lead ultimately to the formation of desert-like conditions” noted at the late 1970s (UNCOD, 1977). That means desertification is sensitively related to human-induced and natural factors, such as agricultural, developmental activities and Climate Change that may prolong drought, soil erosion (via wind and water), and eventually cause extensive land degradation and deterioration in dryland environment. Indeed, infrastructure and its impacts, such as constructions and urbanisation, will cause further rapid landuse changes, and particularly reducing the green areas (e.g. grassland, forest and vegetation areas).

Unfortunately, majority of the BRI ECs are located on the arid or semi-arid environment, where the annual precipitation is normally less than 600mm per year (that could be one or two days amount of rainfall in Hong Kong and South China in the summer season), these areas are highly exposed to desertification. Because of the BRI developments and Climate Change, it is expected the desertification will be continuously expanding as these areas are under threats of severe drought effects from dryness and climatic change (e.g. temperature and humidity).

Majority of Economic Corridors are located in arid or semi-arid environments…

That said in the current BRI, we can see there have been large areas of drylands particularly located in C and W Asia, Serbia, E and S Europe. For example, six Provinces (Xinjiang, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Hebei) across NW and N China (e.g. Losses Plateau) are suffering from mild to high level of desertification (figure on the right) (Wang et al., 2008).

However, the BRI encourages expansions of existing transnational transport systems (e.g. cross-countries highways, railways, transport hubs, etc.) and developments on commercial, industrial and residential on dryland areas. These socio-economic changes will enhance further reduction of vegetation areas and create further erosion, to exacerbate desertification.

Here, we suggest decision-makers, infrastructure planners, and other relevant stakeholders to work together on reducing BRI’s negative impacts on desertification but also to think how to transform this argument into an opportunity for Green BRI promotion.

If BRI adopts Climate Change adaptation and desertification mitigation practices as one of the major streamline, it could, for example, plan and implement a network of protected areas in dryland environment to avoid further landuse changes, reduction of vegetated areas (grassland and forest) and avoid further soil erosion across all ECs in the dryland areas across Eurasia. In much of BRI’s region, especially in NW China, C & W Asia, there is a clear need for additional transnational agreement and legislation on dryland protection and conservation.

BRI should adopt Climate Change adaptation mitigation practices…

…China with UN can lead

Also, we encourage that the BRI could achieve reduction of desertification by the leadership from the Chinese Government. China can lead other countries alongside with the United Nations to promote desertification reduction and mitigation scheme and strategies in BRI along the C and W Asia to follow and support. That opportunistically promotes transboundary conservation of dryland and semi-dryland environments. Currently, some BRI countries are rarely adopted regional/national control countermeasures for desertification, while there are still lacking holistic management strategies and practices.

More importantly, contemporary measures are subject to drawbacks and a framework, such as the one established on 10 September 2017 on the side-lines of COP13 to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), is urgently needed to further enhance the collaboration among BRI countries during the desertification conservation (Zhang, 2017). That said China can take the initiative and working closely with the United Nations to build up partnerships on soil and water management and conservation for transboundary geographical aspects in the BRI program.

Furthermore, developments under BRI need to follow best practice environmental planning such as applying global/regional climate models and hydrological models to understand possible feedbacks between future climate change and desertification and their likely effects on hydrological patterns.

Developments under BRI need to follow best practice environmental planning

Whilst, the authorities to conduct Strategic Environmental Assessments and Sustainability Assessments (SEA and SA), for promoting the balancing developmental decisions on socio-economic, environment and ecology of the large-spatial scale of dryland environment (across countries in the ECs). For the reason that, early assessment of impacts at the likelihood stage rather than once investments and decisions have been made (i.e. before conducting the Environmental Impact Assessment of construction project).

These management practices and the application of the mitigation hierarchy to reduce potential desertification expansion, avoid soil erosion and aim to achieve sustainable development in the arid and semi-arid environment (below figure), which is the wise and sustainable ways to enhance long-term development for China and the BRI involved countries in the dryland environment.


[1] Belt and Road Portal. (2017). Belt and Road Initiative Information Centre.
[2] Communist Party of China (CPC) news. (2013) President Xi’s vision for the future OBOR strategy.
[3] HUANG, Y. (2016). Understanding China’s Belt & Road Initiative: Motivation, framework and assessment. China Economic Review, 40, 314-321.
[4] UNCOD 1977. Round-up, plan of action and resolutions. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Conference on Desertification.
[5] WANG, X., CHEN, F., HASI, E. & LI, J. 2008. Desertification in China: An assessment. Earth-Science Reviews, 88, 188-206.
[6] ZHANG, J. 2017. Belt and Road countries in joint fight against desertification. Xinhua News Agency, 11 September 2017.

Further Reading

  • Belt & Road Initiative Injects Vitality Into Economies – Professor Asit Biswas & Cecilia Tortajada from the National University of Singapore show how China’s Belt & Road Initiative can benefit developing economies in Asia & Africa by promoting connectivity
  • Two Sessions 2020 – Ecological Roadmap – China’s still sticking to the ecological roadmap despite COVID-19. CWR’s Xu runs us through three key takeaways from this year’s Two Sessions that give clear signals of this direction
  • Becoming Beautiful: Property Rights For Natural Resources – The Ministry of Natural Resources is creating a landmark rights system for each natural resource, from coal and gas to forests and water. What does this mean and where are the pilots? Find out in our review
  • Greening The Yellow River For A Beautiful China – As President Xi reiterates the Yellow River’s importance, Dr Zhanfeng Dong from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning expands on policies for “黄河宁,天下平” – a stable Yellow River, peace in China
  • 2019 State Of Ecology & Environment Report Review – Has groundwater quality recovered from the drastic deterioration in 2018? Can the major rivers meet their Water Ten targets? Read our review of the latest 2019 report to catch up on China’s water quality

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Dr. Faith Chan
Author: Dr. Faith Chan
Dr Faith Chan is Assistant Professor in Geographical Sciences, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Nottingham Ningbo China, and Senior visiting research fellow in the University of Leeds. He specialises in international water management policies, particularly in sustainable flood management and planning practices, flood risk assessment practices in the UK, Europe and East Asian coastal cities, deltas and their applications in both developed and developing countries.
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Dr. Pengfei Li
Author: Dr. Pengfei Li
Dr. Pengfei Li is an associate professor at Xi’an University of Science and Technology (XUST), China. His research concentrates on soil erosion processes and their response to environment change. Currently, he is working on several projects regarding soil erosion processes and their modelling on the Chinese Loess Plateau such as Natural Science Foundation of China grant (No. 41807063; 41977059). Dr. Li received his PhD degree from the University of Leeds, UK in 2015. During 2015-2017, he conducted a post-doctoral research at the Institute of Soil and Water Conservation, Chinese Academy of Sciences. After that, he took the associate professorship at XUST.
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Dr. Juanle Wang
Author: Dr. Juanle Wang
Juanle WANG, received a Ph.D. degree in 2005 from University of Chinese Academy of Sciences and a B.S and a Master degree from China University of Mining and Technology. He is currently a professor and deputy director of department of Geodata Science and sharing at Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, director of World Data Center for Renewable Resources and Environment in ISC- WDS, vice director of information committee of China Society of natural resources, vice director of Environment Information Branch of Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, member of national expert group of “Man and the Biosphere”, editorial board of “Data Science Journal”, “Data”, “Regional Problem”, “China Science & Technology Resources Review” and “China Scientific Data”. His recent main research interests are data sharing of resource and environment science, spatial information system of One Belt One Road and disaster risk reduction knowledge service. He published more than 90 papers, 4 monographs and 2 atlases nearly 5 years. He was awarded the Second prize of National Science and Technology Progress Award of China in 2014.
Read more from Dr. Juanle Wang →