A Dead Ecosystem Can ‘Blossom as the Rose’
“We found a landscape that was virtually denuded of vegetation.” These are the words of ecologist and filmmaker John Liu spoken in his documentary The Lessons of the Loess Plateau.
Stretching across 250,000 square miles of North Central China, the Loess Plateau was anciently a lush region of forests and natural grasslands, rife with all kinds of life. Its abundance attracted so many people that it became the cradle of Chinese civilization. But as population density increased, residents cleared more and more land, and resources grew scarcer. People then farmed and grazed their livestock more aggressively. Over the course of thousands of years, this activity almost entirely stripped away the vegetation and eroded the soil. Eventually, it turned the Loess Plateau into one of the most degraded ecosystems on Earth.
Most of the people ended up leaving the barren plateau. But the degradation they had caused followed them. Dust storms from the parched area blew hundreds of miles into cities as far away as Beijing and Shanghai. Millions of tons of the plateau’s silt washed into the Yellow River, causing devastating floods and droughts downstream. The millions who remained on Loess became trapped in a cycle of poverty and ecological destruction that passed from generation to generation.
In 1995, John Liu and a team of Chinese and foreign experts set their sights on this place “that was virtually denuded of vegetation.” They knew it had once been lush and populated by millions, and they wanted to see what could be done to restore it.
Among their first tasks was convincing locals to stop the free-range livestock grazing that was destroying what little vegetation remained in the area. To accomplish this, they instituted a mass surveying project, dividing the land and assigning each plot to one local family. Everyone then knew which area was owned by which family, and each family now had both responsibilities and rights.
“What eventually convinced the local people was the assurance that they would have tenure of their land, that they would directly benefit from the effort they invested in the new project,” Liu said.
The team then began educating locals in land restoration. “The goal was to give a hat to the hilltops, give a belt to the hills, as well as shoes at the base,” said Ta Fuyuan, chief engineer of the water protection bureau. The “hat” would be trees planted on the highest elevations that were not to be cut down. The “belt” would be terraces that reduced the slope of the hills, slowing the flow of rainwater so that it instead soaked into the soil. The “shoes” would be dams built in the valleys designed to hold some water in the ecosystem.
The plan to restore the Loess Plateau was immense in scale, yet relatively low-tech. Hundreds of square miles of hilltop trees were planted mostly by hand and simple machinery. The large terraces in the steep slopes were dug mainly with hand tools. Plantings in depleted soil were also done by hand.
‘Like a Rose’
This was one of the most ambitious development projects ever undertaken, and it was attempted without advanced technology.
The results were dramatic.
The team and the Loess inhabitants reshaped hundreds of devastated gullies. They cut thousands of terraces into the hillsides and planted miles of flat fields in them, growing crops and grazing animals in a sustainable way. More than 13,500 square miles—enough land to fit Houston, Texas, into it 22 times—once again became an active part of a functioning hydrological cycle.
Water could be absorbed by plants, causing both evaporation and humidity to increase. The system began to perpetuate itself.
“The roots of the plants and the annual accumulation of decaying organic matter is helping stabilize the soil,” Liu said. “The improved soil structure and vegetation cover helps naturally infiltrate and retain water during rainfall, reducing the threat of flooding, drought and dust storms, and beginning to restore a more normal water cycle. … Gradually, fertility that had been leached from the soil is returning. This, in turn, affects the ability of the land to produce crops.”
On the Loess Plateau today, biodiversity is booming, with all kinds of plants and animals flourishing. Thousands of square miles have been transformed from a barren desert into an oasis of flora, fauna and fertile farmland. This has been one of the largest re-greening projects in human history.
The scale of the project is astounding. An area the size of Belgium has been restored. And more than 2.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty. This nation-sized accomplishment has proved that it is possible to rehabilitate ecosystems that had been destroyed across vast areas and over hundreds of years, and to make dramatic progress in less than a generation.
Some of the restored areas are untamed forests and grasslands, but most of it is inhabited, farmed on, grazed and otherwise used by people. But this time around, humans inhabit it in a way that understands and respects the way our natural environment was created.
Others saw what was accomplished on the Loess Plateau and took note.
Re-greening the Sinai
In 2016, Ties van der Hoeven was working with a Belgian dredging company when the government of Egypt contacted it about restoring Lake Bardawil, a lagoon on the northern Sinai Peninsula that connects Egypt with Israel. The lagoon was extremely salty and largely devoid of life. Egypt hoped that restoring it could increase fish stocks.
Van der Hoeven was intrigued by the project, but he had larger ambitions. Beyond Lake Bardawil, the entire Sinai Peninsula is mostly a barren wasteland. Van der Hoeven had a vision of an environmental project to restore waters and land across northern Sinai.
The Sinai was not always a barren desert. Documents from the 1,500-year-old Greek Orthodox Saint Catherine’s Monastery record that lumber was harvested in the region, and cave paintings there depict significant vegetation.
Van der Hoeven cofounded a new company with two associates, Gijs Bosman and Maddie Akkermans: the Weather Makers BV.
Van der Hoeven suspects that human activity caused the desertification of the Sinai. When men deforest an area, the soil holds less water, and increased runoff takes away with it nutrients and other vegetation-sustaining components from the soil.
One of the Weather Makers’ first challenges was to figure out how to bring a large amount of pure water into the desert for a sustainable period of time. For this, they turned to John Todd, an American marine biologist who invented an “eco machine,” a network of large barrels connected with piping and stored in a greenhouse. Each barrel is populated by a “mini ecosystem.” Some of these are mainly algae. Others are mostly bacteria. Others contain larger organisms such as plants, insects and even fish; they are basically ponds in a barrel.
Water flows from barrel to barrel through the pipes. As it flows, the various organisms purify it. Barrel by barrel, the water becomes cleaner.
In cooperation with Todd, the Weather Makers developed the EcoOasis, an upgraded eco machine that converts seawater from the Mediterranean Sea coastline into clean fresh water, packed with nutrients that can bring soil to life. Akkermans told the Trumpet that the “magical key point” is that the lake sediment still contains bacteria. “Those bacteria are at this moment asleep,” she said. “But you can activate those, and the EcoOasis will assist us doing that.” From there, the sediments can “rejuvenate the whole system.”
The plan is to set up hundreds of EcoOases in the area to constantly supply fresh water to the parched soil, eventually enabling plants to grow. Within a few years, these plants become miniature habitats that can sustain themselves. The EcoOases can then move to another location, and the habitats can grow and connect with one another. The Weather Makers plan to use and re-use these EcoOases until most of the northern Sinai Peninsula is re-greened and teeming with life.
Yet the Weather Makers’ vision extends beyond the Sinai. Akkermans said, “The vision is a little bit big, because we believe that the Sinai itself, when you re-green it, will bring back rain toward the whole of North Africa, and the southern parts of Europe and the Middle East.”
‘The Desert Shall Rejoice’
The endeavor to re-green the deserts is an exciting one, partly because there are so many degraded locations to rehabilitate. Almost one third of the world’s landmass is desert. That amount grows every day by about 40 square miles. Some happens naturally and some from human activity like slash-and-burn agriculture and overgrazing.
But the Bible tells us that a time is on the horizon when these areas will be healed.
Isaiah 35:1-2 say: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing ….” Verse 6 reads: “[F]or in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.” Isaiah 41:19 states: “I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together” (Revised Standard Version).
In his booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like, the late educator Herbert W. Armstrong wrote: “Can you imagine such a fabulous scene? Deserts becoming green, fertile, garden lands of trees, shrubs, bubbling springs and brooks; mountains brought low, and made inhabitable … Think about the vast wastes of this Earth. Does it sound incredible, unbelievable that God could make them blossom like a rose? Why should it?”
Indeed—why should it?
A few humans, with some study of natural hydrological function, hard work and government mandates, have regreened thoroughly degraded lands today. How much more could the God who created Earth and all its ecosystems and water cycles in the first place clean them up tomorrow? And instead of limited knowledge, minuscule human strength and mandates from corrupt governments, He will use complete knowledge and wisdom, omnipotence, and His perfect government to accomplish it on a scale and to a degree we can scarcely imagine.
Isaiah continued discussing this time—a time in the near future after Jesus Christ returns to Earth to rule over mankind—when God would “do a new thing,” by giving “water in the wilderness” and “rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19-20). Isaiah prophesied of a time when God would “make [Zion’s] wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody” (Isaiah 51:3).
This isn’t talking about limited areas. Neither is it talking about long-term geological forces that will require epochs to improve conditions. God’s “regreening revolution” will be worldwide. And He will accomplish it far faster than any endeavor of man’s today.
Mr. Armstrong continued: “[G]od has the solution, and how simple it is. … Open up huge slices of the Earth, like the Kalahari Desert, the Lake Chad basin and the Sahara in Africa, the Gobi Desert in Asia, and the great American deserts. Make green and verdant the vast wastes of Mongolia, Siberia, Saudi Arabia and many of the Western states in the U.S. … Then, provide good, gentle rainfall, in right balance, just at the right season. And what happens?
“Multiple millions of acres of unbelievably fertile, productive, wonderful farmland suddenly become available—just waiting to be discovered, and pioneered.
“Impossible? In the hands of man—certainly.”
But Luke 1:37 tells us that “with God, nothing shall be impossible.”
The deserts will blossom like lush gardens. We will have functional ecosystems on a planetary scale! And we now know from experience that this kind of re-greening, even in drastically degraded ecosystems, can happen quickly. The desert will blossom as the rose.