The river valley, which makes up a quarter of China’s total farmland and houses one-third of its 1.1 billion population, suffers from serious soil erosion due to overfarming, overgrazing and deforestation. However, a recent satellite remote sensing survey showed that the amount of soil eroded in the important Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and Chongqing Municipality has been reduced to 1.3 billion tons from 1.5 billion tons. The same survey also showed that forest coverage in the region has risen from 28% to 35%, according to a report by the state-run Xinhua news agency published on 4 October.

Zhang Zhongwei, Director of the Yangtze River Water Resources Committee, attributed the change to comprehensive efforts to control soil erosion at various levels in the region and a nationwide afforestation campaign.

China has invested tens of billions of yuan over the past decade in reducing soil erosion and planting tree belts along the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze.

To date, 60,000 square kilometres of eroded fields have been turned into fertile farmland and the amount of land “covered with grass and trees” has risen from 22% to 41%. Furthermore, the State Forestry Administration plans to invest 100 million yuan (US$12 million) in an afforestation project along the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in the next 10 years, Xinhua said.

Just one county, Huize, lying adjacent to the Jinsha River, a major tributary of the 6,300 kilometre Yangtze, has planted trees on 200,000 hectares of land in the past 10 years, expanding plant coverage from 17% to 32% of the county’s total area.

In this area, as in other Yangtze regions, farmers’ per capita annual net income has climbed thanks to profits from newly built orchards and to the higher grain output of the improved farmland.

“In the past, my family opened up new farmland every year, but we found it harder to live when rivers dried up and forests disappeared,” Liu Zhongyou, a farmer in Huize County, told Xinhua. “Inspired by the government-initiated ‘grain for green’ programme, I have converted 2.6 hectares of low-yielding farmland into fertile, green land. Consequently, flour and rice have replaced sweet potatoes as the staple food of my family.”

However, water conservation expert Shi Liren warned that the environment of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, where two-fifths of the country’s industrial and agricultural economies are produced, is still quite fragile, despite the recent improvement, and that the task to restore it will be long-term and arduous.

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