Living off the sand

Jul 2012

IconDesertification threatens 38 percent of the world’s surface. Last year, fields in western France were baked into barren waves of clay; with no grass growing, soldiers were deployed to feed hungry cattle. The spring of 2011 was one of northern Europe’s driest on record, for the third year running. But climate is just part of the problem.

Try diverting rivers onto arid land and you may just make things worse. Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea shrank to a tenth of its original size after its tributaries were diverted under Soviet plans to irrigate cotton, while hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers turned northern China’s grasslands into dust with a series of intensive-agriculture projects during the Great Leap Forward. The resulting dust storms in Gansu Province eventually buried the former Silk-Road oasis Minqin under piles of reddish grit.

Central-government authorities tried to fix the agricultural gaffe with an army of trees†, but you can’t plant just anything in a desert. Today more than 870 square kilometers of petrified trunks poke from the sand. Tending them has wasted villagers’ remaining supply of groundwater, already under strain: “I haven’t taken a bath for nearly 20 years,” says Minqin farmer Sheng Tangguo.

To bring water back, let the wilderness return. Deserts feed on cleared, overfarmed land and rows of monoculture. Minqin peasants have started to bury grids of dry straw instead of crops. These stabilize the ground, trap wild spores and permit native bush species to take root. But the change is fragile. Dig a few centimeters down and you’ll find the desert waiting.


† China leads the world in reforestation efforts, but 75% of its new trees die within a year, possibly because Chinese farmers plant the trees upside down: dead trees meet reforestation quotas, but take up less space.


Plants: The essentials


You can make bamboo into wine, paper, bicycles, flutes, furniture and houses. Hollowed out, it can be an oven, a water filter or a rocket. It’s delicious, bulletproof, and the fastest-growing plant in the world.


What’s green, round and tastes like chocolate mashed potatoes? The high-fiber Central American breadnut grows in poor, drought-affected soil and keeps for up to five years. Nutritious and cheap, breadnut flour was distributed in Guatemala after the 2005 and 2007 hurricanes.

Diesel Tree

Draw03Tap the light brown sap of a mature South American copaifera tree and pipe it straight into your car’s fuel tank. The sap is a natural biodiesel, and just one tree can produce 40 liters of fuel a year.


Draw04Lost in a cold, damp post-apocalyptic wilderness? “Tinder fungi” can be used to start fires; the hair-thin mycelium at the base of a mushroom can be used to purify water; and several species of Mycena mushroom don’t just grow in the dark, they glow in the dark.



Energy-rich spuds grow faster in a broader range of climates than any other staple crop, and worldwide, people eat an average of 33 kilograms a year each. US researchers have even found a way to make plastic from their starch.


What happens in a sandstormInfo

Everything around you turns the color of rust. You see a wall of sand one-kilometer high coming towards you at 80 meters per second. Sandstorms have become more frequent in the last decade everywhere from the Sahara to the Gobi desert, where drought and deforestation have loosened topsoil, ready to be picked up by gale-force winds. You can’t outrun this, so learn to survive it.Ways to protect yourself from sand


Ways to protect yourself from sand

Mask up

Diy01Push lip balm up your nose, strap goggles over your eyes, moisten a rag with water (or urine, if water is in short supply), and wrap it around your nose and mouth. Smear lip balm over the rest of your face.

Play dead

Diy02Bedouin tribesmen cope with Saharan sandstorms by lying on the ground. Protect your head with your arms and get comfortable. The storm could last anywhere from a few minutes to a week.

Close ranks

Diy03In a matter of seconds, visibility will be reduced to zero. If you’re in a group, link arms or use a rope to stay together. Shout your friends’ names to make sure they’re still there.

Get a camel

Diy04With triple-layered, ultra-thick eyelashes, lips strong enough to form an impenetrable seal, the ability to close its own nostrils, and profuse, sand-stopping hair inside its ears, a camel is your best means of making a getaway.


From the pages of COLORS #84 - APOCALYPSE.