BEIJING, Jan 24 (Reuters) - There is little cause for optimism in China’s fight to turn back the spreading deserts, with efforts so far failing to live up to expectations, a senior government official said on Thursday.
Deserts, which cover a fifth of China, are spreading on the upper reaches of the Yellow River, on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and parts of Inner Mongolia and Gansu, driven by decades of overgrazing and deforestation.
"At present, China’s desertification situation remains extremely serious," Deputy Forestry Minister Zhu Lieke told a news conference at the end of an international desertification conference co-hosted by the United Nations.
"The threat is still very prominent, the spread of deserts in some areas is still severe. It is still very difficult to turn the deserts back and results from such efforts have been weak," he added. "Man is still doing too much damage."
There are an estimated 320,000 sq km (123,600 sq miles) of land under direct threat of turning into desert, and 500,000 sq km of land already desertified which could be turned back.
The government has spent billions of dollars planting trees to hold back the spread of the sands, but Zhu said the effect had not been ideal.
"In some areas which have been treated, vegetation has only just started to grow back and is very unstable," he added.
"If there is no effective solution in certain areas, the deserts will only keep spreading. In desert areas, there is a problem that damage continues at the same time as work goes on to turn back the sands."
As well as eating up valuable farm land, the expanding deserts have helped fuel vicious sandstorms that lash northern China every spring, and whose effects are felt in South Korea and Japan.
Beijing has pledged to hold a sandstorm-free Olympics in 2008 and has launched new campaigns to repair denuded land and plant trees.
Zhu outlined no new measures or funding to fight deserts, but repeated an earlier government goal of bringing the problem "fundamentally under control" by 2010. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Katie Nguyen)