Improving Local Livelihoods by Protecting the Ningxia Desert

Villages of Liuyaotou in Yanchi, Ningxia plant shrubs on desert land (Photo credit: the PMO)

“The cold winds from the north and the west blew up the sands, and all you could see was sand – everywhere,” recounted Liu Zhanyou, the Village Chief of Liuyaotou, Ningxia. The desert-like Ningxia environment is known for its harsh living conditions, making everyday life difficult for local villagers like Liu En. The Liuyaotou villagers, residing on the borders of the Mu Us desert where the annual precipitation is less than 250mm, have to rely on sheep husbandry as their source of income.

Unfortunately, Liu En and others’ dependency on sheep have led to aggravated land desertification. In the past, the villagers used to send their sheep out onto the grassland, without realizing that having too many sheep grazing on the fragile grasslands would lead to over-grazing. The decrease in grass cover and in some cases, a destruction of the grass root system led to faster desertification. 

Attempting to control this problem, in 2002, the Ningxia government initiated a grazing ban to stop free grazing practice to control desertification in Liuyaotou. Unfortunately, these efforts had limited success as many farmers secretly breached the regulations. As the Director of Bureau of Water Resources in Yanchi County Mr. Zhang Delong said, “due to lack of alternative livelihoods and financial support, the regulations were hard to enforce on the villagers” and so progress in anti-desertification was slow.

With UNDP’s help, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region Government partnered up in 2010 to improve local livelihoods in environmentally friendly ways, believing that progress can be achieved in both economic and ecological terms. The Ningxia Anti-Desertification and Livelihood Improvement Project achieved its goals by increasing local government’s capacity through enhanced inter-sectorial collaboration on ecological management and poverty reduction as well as establishing local pilots for sustainable development. The project is jointly funded by the government (US $ 9 million) and UNDP (US $ 1.5 million).


  • More than 500 sheep sheds were built in around 20 villages including in Liuyaotou, to combat anti-desertification, divert villagers’ attention to better fodder and increase annual income per person by 2,000 RMB, particularly for disadvantaged groups like women.
  • In total 3,000 ha of farmland were covered with the plastic mulch, saving 5 million litres of water every year.
  • A knowledge network sharing China’s best practices with other developing countries was set up between the Ningxia project and an Iran-based GEF project

To protect Liuyaotou village against further desertification, the project started to address the root cause of soil erosion by having farmers accept that it was beneficial to keep the sheep in corrals rather than practicing traditional grazing in the surrounding grasslands. The project assisted farmers in applying for micro-finance and subsidies and in turn helped villagers like Liu En construct new sheep sheds. In total, more than 500 sheds were built in more than 20 villages including in Liuyaotou, separating the sheep and protecting the fragile ecosystem.

While keeping the sheep off the grasslands addressed desertification, it did not solve farmers’ concern for food for their livestock. In the past, they had in part been relying on the grasslands but had subsidized this by growing corn as additional feedstock. However, with the desert encroachment this had become increasing problematic.

Liu En used to grow corn on about 0.7 ha of land to provide fodder to his sheep only to find the juvenile corn plants damaged by fierce sandstorms, causing the sheep to be poorly nourished and increasingly dependent on the grasslands.

To help farmers cultivate fodder for the sheep, the project assisted them in applying drip irrigation technology along with plastic mulch to prevent the crops from drying and protect them from the destructive sandstorms. This approach provides for stronger growth which enables the plants to live under a more stable and moisturized environment, absorbing more applied fertilizers, according to Mr. Zhang.

During the past three years, a total of 3,000 ha of farmland were covered with the plastic mulching, saving 5 million litres of water every year. Liu En expanded his corn field to 2 ha and increased the crop productivity significantly, ensuring that his livestock had enough food throughout the year.

In addition, the project also directed the villagers’ attention towards Caragana microphyllam, a shrub that was widely planted locally as it was very nutritious and a good source of food for sheep. The leguminous shrub can withstand the dryness and coldness of northern China.  An entrepreneur in Yanchi, Mr. Li Zhidong, who is the head of a local farmers’ association, is running his good business of collecting the shrub and converting them into edible fodder for sheep and cattle. Villagers can see how the sustainable use of shrubs can improve the environment and at the same time boost their livelihoods.

“My sheep are better fed now so they can breed twice a year instead of just once. My family is doing well as now we earn 5 times more than what we used to,” said Liu. This initiative has increased annual income per person, especially for women, by 2,000 RMB. For Liu and his family of five, this means 10,000 RMB more per year. For now, Liu En and his fellow villagers are less worried about the sandstorms or sheep, seeing positive results from the land. “The people who were forced to leave my village because of the hard living conditions are now back. Life is getting better and so is our environment.”

The project will soon achieve the goal of rehabilitating the ecosystem while improving local livelihoods. By coordinating with local government agencies, the project has brought provincial and local level governments together to address critical environment issues.

With the successful implementation of project pilots, knowledge sharing with other developing countries is under way. The project received a team from an Iran-based Global Environment Facility (GEF) project to learn more about anti-desertification best practices and a team of Chinese experts were invited to visit Iran to identify areas of cooperation between the two projects. With such knowledge-sharing platforms, dry land areas in China and other countries could greatly benefit from Ningxia’s experiences in working towards anti-desertification and in improving household livelihoods.

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