China’s western region includes 11 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities under the direct administration of the central government. There include the following: Shaanxi, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Tibet and Chongqing. The region covers 5.4 million square kilometers, 57 percent of the country’s land area, and has a population of 285 million people, 23 percent of the total population of the nation. More than half of the country’s identified natural resources are in the western region.
Despite its relatively vast size, the region is not very fertile. Water resources are in scarce supply, and are dependent on the vagaries of climate variability from year to year and decade to decade. Speculation aside, it is not yet clear what influence global warming has had or will have on inter-annual climate variability in western China. Thus, the paucity of fertile soil combined with the uncertainties of precipitation makes it a difficult region for widespread agricultural production activities. Making things even worse is the fact that severe wind erosion is a constant occurrence in the region; in fact, eroded areas in the western region are estimated to make up 80 percent of the country’s total eroded land. In addition, the resulting dust-laden winds can worsen environmental conditions thousands of kilometers or more downwind – as evidenced by the several sandstorms that have plagued Beijing in recent years. More dramatic in a global sense has been the spread, notably since at least the late 1990s, of major dust storms across the Pacific Ocean to regions as far distant as North America. Furthermore, meteorological observations show that the strength and frequency of these sandstorms, which are mainly generated in the western desert and semiarid regions, have increased significantly in recent times.
The bottom line Is that the western provinces, as defined geographically by China, are the least populated but have considerable untapped human and natural resources. There provinces also happen to have the largest share of China’s minority cultures. How then to dismantle that invisible wall for the betterment of all concerned?
This task is rendered even more difficult by the fact that along with the rapid development of its economy in recent years, China is also suffering from the degradation of its natural environment (water, land and air). That degradation has been well recorded and reported: Water and air pollution due to the increasing number of factories, cars, and people as a result of increasing affluence and a lack of enforcement of environmental laws; soil erosion due to uncontrolled deforestation, grazing activities and other improper land use activities; intermittent as well as chronic water shortages as well as declining water quality; longer periods of low or no flow in the country’s major rivers due to waste and mismanagement of water; desertification and an increase in the frequency and intensity and duration of dust transport due to poor land use practices, and so forth. These problems lie squarely at the intersection of naturally occurring climate change and human-caused land-use changes that also affect regional climate, and clearly need to be taken into account, if China is to be able to successfully and develop its western provinces in a sustainable way.
Indeed, the Chinese government has chosen to vigorously pursue the economic development of its western provinces. It seeks to raise the standard of living of people in its west, to bring about more interaction between west and east, and at the same time to raise the level of development of the entire country.