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[BEIJING] China has launched a major plan to reclaim a quarter of a million square kilometres of land it has lost to expanding deserts.

Nearly one-fifth of China's total area is covered with deserts that could have serious impacts on agriculture and settlements if they were to spread more.

According to China's State Forestry Administration, 500,000 square kilometres of desert has the potential to be reclaimed.

The 'desert control scheme' announced yesterday (28 February) by the Chinese cabinet aims to reclaim half of this by 2020.

The government will ban land use in areas at risk of desertification, and plant trees and grasses in an attempt to stop the sand spreading.

It will also increase research on desertification and set up a system to monitor the spread of deserts.

One major contributor to desertification is people cutting down trees to burn as fuel. The scheme will therefore invest in efficient water use and sustainable energy supplies — such as wind or solar — in dry areas.

"The most important task is to work out robust research-based plans to meet the specific demands of each element of the desert control battle," says Wang Tao, director of the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute in Lanzhou.

Wang told SciDev.Net that the scheme could help to coordinate Chinese research on desertification, but that the amount of money the government commits to the research must be made clear.

Jia Zhibang, director of the State Forestry Administration, says the government will encourage private sector involvement in the scheme.

All of the money companies spend on fighting desertification will be tax exempt, and the government will pay the interest on any loans used to carry out the work, says Jia.

Announcing the scheme, the Chinese cabinet said that a massive tree-planting project that began in the late 1990s is already curbing desert expansion in some areas.

Between 2000 and 2004, China's deserts shrank by 1,283 square kilometres a year, compared to yearly growth of 3,436 square kilometres from 1994-1999.