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China faces reign of sand: Circle of Blue reports on Inner Mongolia’s expanding desert

Collaborative journalism project covers front lines of global water crisis

INNER MONGOLIA, CHINA (January 21, 2008) – Furious dust and sandstorms from Inner Mongolia cripple airports, darken skies, and choke millions of people across East Asia every spring. According to “Reign of Sand,” the new multimedia report from Circle of Blue, the storms are growing in intensity and frequency, and the primary causes are deepening drought in northern China and the mismanagement of the largest grasslands on earth.

“It’s much more than a landscape surrendering to the sand,” says J. Carl Ganter, director of Circle of Blue, the journalism-based news, science and collaborative project covering water issues worldwide. “We’re looking at a crucial international economic and environmental story that has implications for us all.”

As China prepares for the Summer Olympic Games in August, international focus on its air pollution is increasing. The main target is to reduce urban smog from car and coal emissions, but China’s sand storms are an equal threat to air quality and human health. They are often driven by 80 mile-per-hour winds that last for days. These storms, along with the water shortages and the land degradation causing them, underscore the extreme stress that China's economic development is putting on its environment and its 1.3 billion people.

“Reign of Sand” comes as China's spring dust storms approach. Scientists say the severity and frequency of the dust storms reflect worsening conditions: Dryer climate, stronger winds, water shortages, over-grazing, population growth, and a clash between nomadic herders and the government over range and farmland management.

Globally, the UN estimates that two-thirds of the world's population will live in areas of water stress within the next 20 years.

A nonprofit project of the Oakland, California-based Pacific Institute, Circle of Blue covers the challenges and solutions of the global freshwater crisis using leading talents in journalism, science, data and design. Circle of Blue is a member project of the Clinton Global Initiative. “Reign of Sand” was produced with the help of the China Environment Forum of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington-based research institute that specializes in world affairs.

Full multimedia coverage is online at 

Expanded release, photographs and resources:


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Circle of Blue Reign of Sand

INNER MONGOLIA, CHINA - Sand from a dry lake bed streams through the hands of a nomadic herder in Inner Mongolia. Arxiaot Lake first went dry in 2003 and the resulting desert has doubled in size over the last four years. A new report from Circle of Blue says many of the same conditions that produced the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s are being replicated in China.

Photo: Palani Mohan/ Getty Images for
Circle of Blue