Skip to main content

Tides of Sand and Steel: Desertification, Defense Management, and Resilient Planning

by Rouzbeh Akhbari
Irrigation in Hongsibu
Tides of Sand and Steel: Desertification, Defense Management, and Resilient Planning
Contributors (1)
Mar 30, 2018

(Header Image: Abandoned irrigation project on the outskirts of Hongsibu. Source: Photographed by Felix Kalmenson)


This paper interrogates the role of military thinking and armed forces in developing new urban ecologies as a tactical response to desertification, soil erosion and expanding sandscapes. By contextualizing the role of defense management in the age of global warming and unpacking concepts such as “defense-in-depth” in relation to ecological preservation, this paper investigates how accounts of urban protection are expanded to a project of “securitizing nature.” The founding narratives and environmental politics of the newly developed county of Hongsibu in China’s Ningxia province are presented as a case study and a site to unpack the political economy of desert rehabilitation agendas. Through questioning the asymmetries in the power dynamics of ecological defense schemes, this paper insists on interpreting the notion of “environmentally resilient urban fabric” not as the enemy of nature but as an integral and reciprocal part of it.


Keywords: desertification, defense-in-depth, resilient planning, desert migration, Hongsibu



In discourses of urbanism, “place-making” is informed by a distinction between sites where human life is reproduced and those reserved for its absence. This line of thinking has historically created a vast paradigm of defensive architectural measures that aim to construct solid borderlines between places inhabited by humans and sites of potential threat to their existence. In the context of the so-called “war on terror” for instance, compartmentalizing defensive strategies have become a new priority in city planning.[1] Many scholarly investigations including Paul Virilio’s City of Panic have illustrated the “city as a container of phobia and terror which engenders itself toward politics of power,”[2] one that inevitably leads to a dramatic increase in the formation of “bunkerised”[3] regions. In this context, terms such as “securitization,” “defense-in-depth” and “area-denial” have formed a major part of the urban planning lexicon, bringing the role of city planning closer to military defense planning in unprecedented ways. In the contemporary context, as the risks associated with climatic change and its impacts on landscapes, economies and politics are becoming increasingly apparent, the morphology of the “safe” city is simultaneously changing. When faced with environmental struggles, the inherent paranoia of defensive schemes that previously transformed the urban centre into a mechanism supported by military tactics are multiplied and extended for the fabrication of a complicated form of resilient, but not necessarily sustainable, urbanism. The adherence to these defensive paradigms continues to strengthen the ties between urban planners and military strategists, this time not under the auspices of “terrorism,” but in a battle against what authors such as Rob Nixon would identify as “slow violence.”[4]

Expanding sandscapes, as a form of delayed destruction, make up a large portion of the environmental impacts of global warming across all continents. The primary focus of this paper is an investigation into the role of military thinking and armed forces in developing new urban ecologies as a tactical response to desertification. In other words, my aim is to interrogate the connection between architectural mechanisms that are inherent to defensive urban planning in relation to anti-desertification programs. I will initially attempt to contextualize the political economy of defense management in the age of global warming by rendering a more comprehensive image of the breadth of approaches involved, including initiatives implemented against known challenges such as rising seas levels, as well as, less-widely debated consequences of climatic changes such as destabilized landscapes and soil erosion. I then examine how in the context of anti-desertification efforts, narratives of urban protection have been expanded into a project of “securitizing nature.” In doing so I insist that in the era of neoliberally-inspired economic progress, the militarized models for (re)shaping sandscapes are multi-axis endeavours that not only frame taming the desert as a significant nationalist project with great symbolic value, but also as a source of revenue extraction disguised in the form of “poverty alleviation.”

To provide empirical evidence for my inquiries, I will intertwine narratives and observations from a series of field-research visits to China’s Ningxia province. The complexity, interconnectedness, and at times, conflicting nature of official and personal narratives in my case studies, while particular to Ningxia’s geographic and political context, stand to represent the wide variety of associations that individual and social actors have formed with destabilized sandscapes on a more universal scale. The last section of this paper revolves around an anecdotal case study of the recently developed county of Hongsibu in Ningxia, which provides a reading of the interconnectedness of the issue at hand by highlighting the number of international entities involved in the development, maintenance and cultural upkeep of desert urban fabrics. This expanding county is referred to often as a settlement for ecological refugees and at the same time as a rapidly growing industrial center where new energy and agricultural technologies are put to use. It serves as an excellent example of a sophisticated form of “disaster management” in nations whose immediate future is closely tied to the desert.


Contextualizing Defensive Planning in the Age of Global Warming

In dialogues around the impacts of climate change on urban fabrics, the issue of rising sea levels is often a primary figure of concern. Considering the historical entanglement of trade-centered economies with maritime travel and the reliance on shoreline infrastructures, consumer markets and production units, it is not surprising that this particular aspect of climate change is analyzed with such intensity. Justifiably, the high number of seaside metropolises, free-trade zones established in proximity to open seas, and entire low-lying island nations whose existence is seriously threatened by rising sea levels has created a sense of urgency in designing and employing defensive policies and built forms in these areas. Of course, the concentration of capital on shorelines in the form of property value and circulating currency, particularly in the global north, attracts the attention of ultra-rich private entities, in addition to state organizations whose financial stability is largely dependent on waterfront regions. 

Though these approaches to resilient planning tackle legitimate concerns associated with global warming, they have the potential to overlook how changes in the climate result in destabilization and mobilization of large parts of the land itself. A more comprehensive depiction of the environmental risks currently threatening established and developing urban centres must also include rapid desertification, soil erosion and expansion of sand dunes toward large pockets of population. A more accurate rendition, where expanding oceans encroach on continents from the outside while the dunes from the Sahara, Arabian Peninsula and Gobi Deserts expand internally, helps unpack not only the reality of shifts in landscapes but also the politics and power struggles associated with the advent of defensive environmental methodologies. Contrary to shorelines with invested capital and political power, poor communities whose livelihood is tied to utilizing the land for food and other basic needs (with the exception of a few extraction enclaves in the Middle East) inhabit areas in immediate contact with the desert.  Many of the inhabitants in these areas are dispersed, and less affiliated with global trade, while in countries like China the majority of them are vulnerable Muslim minorities, whose historic and continued defiance against the central government makes them targets of discriminatory policies. Additionally, the association of colonial “wasteland” narratives with desertified areas has historically contributed to an epistemological approach that lacks interest in directly engaging with the customary land practices of desert regions’ inhabitants, and continues to culminate in the myth of the desert as “land without people” and its “population as people without history.”[5]  

Most recently, with the growth in the severity and frequency of impacts of desertification on states, economies and critical infrastructures, many schemes have been implemented to tackle the issue. While these plans operate under the banner of sustainability and are meant to target the root causes of desertification and global warming (namely commercial deforestation and excessive hydrocarbon usage) they are almost exclusively defensive in approach, often treating sandscapes as an outsider force against which settlements must be secured by means of ecological containment and spatial demarcation. In countries like China where desertification-related concerns have gained considerable priority, the project of containing mobile dunes follows the ideological and visual vocabulary of national platforms, in which the desert is the encroaching “other” or “enemy” that requires a collective, regimented and militarized defensive response.

Militarized exclusionary schemes often take the strategic approach of “defense-in-depth,” where each line of fortification acts as a barrier on its own while functioning as a layer of reinforcement for other components in the plan, ultimately delaying the arrival of a given threat.[6] While this concept is widely adopted in the realms of cybernetics, civil defense and infrastructural security (nuclear reactors for example), I argue that defensive ecological models materialize based on a similar layered spatial logic. By unpacking the concept of “defense-in-depth” further and providing a closer relational reading of Ningxia’s struggles with expanding deserts in the sections that follow, I try to deconstruct the asymmetric power relations behind large-scale anti-desertification initiatives and situate my readings as part of a recent global paradigm shift in interpreting, securitizing and urbanizing sandscapes.


Desertification, Defense-in-Depth and Area Denial

As Nixon accurately observes in Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor, “soil erosion and deforestation can fuel conflicts for decades, directly and indirectly costing untold lives.”[7] The issue of desertification is increasingly discussed on multiple global platforms as a major security threat.[8] In China, for example, desertification is an international concern that is complex and multi-faceted with direct social, economic and political implications for states, urban dwellers and rural populations. More specifically, the expanding dunes in Ningxia not only impact the farming and herding community that loses property, pastures and fertile territory in their immediate vicinity, but also the millions of citizens in larger cities such as Beijing that are affected through airborne dust particles, disruptions to food distribution, damages to key transportation infrastructure, and sandstorms that are increasing in frequency and intensity. The geographical extent of the issue transcends Chinese borders, as the Japanese and South Korean governments repeatedly express complaints by citizens who claim to experience terrible health effects because of sandstorms from desertification on the edges of the Gobi and Taklimakan Deserts.[9] The vast scope of individual and state actors involved places this issue at a complex intersection between international diplomacy, domestic politics between ministries responsible for dealing with desertification, and of course, the local population whose livelihood is closely intertwined with the desert.

The Chinese government’s response, originally initiated in the 1950s, has been the largest tree-planting initiative in human history dubbed as the Three-North Shelter Forest Program or the Great Green Wall.[10] As is clear from the word choice in the project’s official title, the goal is, quite literally, the fabrication of a defensive mechanism on a continental scale. This initiative involves constructing a wide forested border zone comprised of resilient vegetation to create a “shelter” or a “wall” against mobile dunes. Similar to other defense projects, The Great Green Wall operates based on identifying the potential threat—in this case the desert—and demarcating exactly where it is not supposed to be. In other words, layered spatial demarcation is the basis for this defensive ecological model, a concept that appropriates military “area denial schemes” for natural forces. For these models to take shape as real-life built structures, it is necessary to understand where the limits or edges of the danger zone are —again in this case the desert—and then designate precisely what or who is at the center of the protection plan. This form of hierarchical defensive arrangement with its spatial depth in relation to a center/periphery is commonly referred to as defense-in-depth. I will unpack the mechanical inner workings and genealogy of this concept below in preparation for my observations in the next section.

Defensive architecture in its simplest form, such as a warning sign that reads “BEWARE OF DOG” on a residential fence, to its most complex manifestations in multi-story bunkers, has always been closely connected to the notion of defense-in-depth. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this concept is through its most common application in personal computer firewall systems. The firewall is meant to prevent viruses from entering the device; however, its design acknowledges that due to the evolving nature of incoming threats, it is inevitable that some external elements will gain access to the system. In other words, it is designed to function as a barrier that can only delay the threat’s arrival. This inherent uncertainty and lack of guarantee is precisely what has created large anti-malware industries that function based on a promise of perpetually evolving reinforcement. Another central idea behind defense-in-depth is arranging space or information according to a most-valued center and less-important sacrificial peripheries. A medieval fortress provides a simple example: the peasants’ homes surround a highly fortified walled city with a deep moat all around it. The fort itself is elevated, compartmentalized, protected with multilayered gates, and monitored by numerous watchtowers. The entire layout of the city in this context is devised for the ultimate protection of the royal suite at its core.

Reading protective ecological infrastructures through the militarized logic of defense-in-depth provides a frame for understanding the defensive efforts against China’s expanding deserts. In this case, the long-term goal of the defensive scheme is to protect densely populated valleys—these are the centers—generally landscapes distant from the desert that are crucial for the economic stability of a nation increasingly relying on urban dwellers. It is not sufficient for a successful plan in these populated regions to merely hold the ground against sand-related hazards; it is also essential to secure the inhabitants’ water, food, energy and commodity flows. As sand and dry soil consume farmlands far from metropolitan areas these crucial channels for urban prosperity are constantly threatened. Therefore, the frontlines of anti-desertification programs are on the peripheries of the protective plan. These terrains are in proximity to the expanding desert itself. They include sparsely vegetated steppes inhabited by nomadic populations, farming communities in and around the desert, and of course, newly developed urban fabrics closer to expanding sand dunes that are growing due to a drastic increase in migration to cities.

The depth of the center-periphery model of defense functions in a fractal pattern, both in space and time. As soil stabilization unfolds, a close examination of the landscape and defensive structures reveals various protected centers and peripheral border zones that ultimately aim to serve the larger goal of the initiative. For example, on a national level, the Great Green Wall acts as a barrier between the capital and the desert. At this scale, the project seems so large that it almost becomes magnified into an abstract, fictional image of border construction for enormous landscapes that are destabilized and mobile. On a provincial scale in Ningxia, afforestation takes the form of multiple patches of plantation separating urban populations in the valleys of the Yellow River and other less densely populated districts from dunes and subsequent sandstorms. These plantations exist in tension with sand-covered terrains. They are separated with fences and visual signs that designate them as ecological preserves. On closer inspection, it is clear that all of these plantations have specific central elements that require protection as well. Even within the boundaries of an eco-reserve the defensive center-periphery logic is extended to the relationship between animals and vegetation, or water and atmosphere. These interconnected demarcations culminate in various built forms such as hundreds of kilometers of low-hanging fences to keep out goats that graze on desert shrubs, or multi-layered irrigation canals to protect against extreme evaporation.

Most designated eco-reserves in the region discussed here are in the process of transformation from previously inhabited settlements, farmlands, and in some instances dunes into forests, and in rare cases into pasture land.[11] This process translates into an additional time-based dimension that any anti-desertification defense plan is destined to navigate. This transformation is a durational and evolving exercise in land stabilization that begins with introducing rudimentary physical barriers. Some of these structures are temporary windbreakers made out of corrugated metal that are meant to disrupt existing wind patterns. After that, dried hay and sand-tolerant vegetation is inserted into the surface in a checkerboard pattern as a means of micro-managing the wind pressure and its influence on the rate at which the sand is lifted. Following these structural additions, new vegetation in the form of shrubs is introduced and later, as the soil becomes more stable, larger trees, notably poplars, are planted on a more permanent basis.[12]

Soil stabilization taking place around infrastructure (in this case railway and highway system). Source: Google Earth.
Soil stabilization taking place around infrastructure (in this case railway and highway system). Source: Google Earth.

This process is arduous, dependent on a massive labor force and requires many years, even decades, for successful completion. In other words, reversing desertification depends on a system of highly regimented defense management that is layered temporally as well as spatially.  

In securitizing and demarcating the desert, other approaches associated with militarized area-denial models find parallels in ecological planning. The tactic of “land neutralization,”[13] for example, has parallel uses in environmental management and in the battlefield. In a war scenario, this strategy relies on acquiring interstitial areas between the enemy’s positions and friendly strongholds as a means of resource access control and mobility regulation.[14] These in-between spaces cannot be captured as a whole, thus, the tactics of “acquisition” revolve around securing major strategic points. These could include entry points in the form of bridges or tunnels, structures for resource extraction (e.g. mines or oil fields), telecommunications equipment, and most importantly, roads or railways leading into the area. Setting up defenses around these elements ensures that access is regulated which translates in practical terms to “capturing” an area. Similarly in the field of eco-conservation, desert rehabilitation in the form of afforestation and other physical barriers has materialized in and around planned infrastructure such as train tracks, highways, electricity lines and irrigation canals. This site-specific approach for addressing tensions between dunes and afforestation yields mixed results. As efforts are compartmentalized and concentrated, this becomes a more manageable and effective way to mobilize resources, but it also contributes to a lack of preparation in areas with fewer settlements or less infrastructure.

In massive anti-desertification initiatives, defensive schemes must “make sense” of the scale of the threat by focusing on what serves as the center or the immediate reason for the protection plan. Placing infrastructural elements at the core of defensive agendas, while effective to some extent, does not address the critical situation of having large human settlements exposed to the hazards of desertification. As a result, defensive afforestation projects study and actively engage with the migratory trajectories of populations immediately affected by the desert. This active management of movement, migration, urban development and new settlements is an integral part of defensive initiatives’ politics and logistics, which are commonly inspired by traditions of centralized planning. That is to say, anti-desertification schemes have increasingly turned towards identifying and constructing specific urban settlements as a reason for mobilizing resources in the midst of vast and dry landscapes. In Ningxia, the official solutions derived from a close inspection of migratory patterns influenced by desertification are a series of complex relocation programs as part of the larger afforestation initiative.[15] These programs tend to materialize in the form of newly fabricated pockets of population in proximity to the dunes, often consisting of settlements for ecological refugees, designated farmlands for crops suitable to dry conditions, and in some instances the creation of much larger urban fabrics with growing industrial sectors.  

The section that follows will engage with the specifics of such relocation programs by offering a detailed look into the state of affairs in the county of Hongsibu, which is an often cited example of the type of urbanism designed for families affected by desertification.[16] This county’s founding narratives and official planning strategies reveal a concentrated exercise in fabricating an immediate reason for combating the desert before it encroaches further toward more established cities. In order to map the architectural mechanisms produced through defensive anti-desertification efforts and to further illustrate the merging of militarized models of spatial practice with ecological and environmental planning, I present the context, history and oral narratives of Hongsibu with specific attention to the semiotics of power that are shared between the state’s military apparatus and the officials concerned with ecological preservation.

The Stories of Hongsibu: A Case Study

Thus far, this paper has engaged with the fundamental concepts and theories in defense planning and briefly dissected the mechanics of afforestation efforts that intersect with militarized spatial models. While unpacking these conceptual and theoretical parallels allows for an interpretation of the ways in which urbanism has expanded into the realm of securitizing nature, it is necessary to observe the ideological dimensions, politics and political economy of this process in order to achieve a more complex understanding of present dynamics between planners, users and the landscape. For instance, studying the modes of narrativizing and historicizing this approach to urbanism in harsh environments provides a glimpse into the complicated psychological dimensions that ecological and urban planners have to navigate. In the case of Hongsibu, which is reflective of numerous similar projects in desert regions, the process of defensive urbanization is interconnected with social and cultural agendas that are equally important in building moral resilience as is the city’s built environment. With the aim of unpacking the asymmetric power balances between the residents’ vernacular approach and the planners’ centralized vision, I will examine what is presented as a type of heroism central to official state narratives in contrast with the stories gathered from local dwellers below.

Hongsibu is located in the valleys of Loushan Mountain, about a two-hour drive southwest of Ningxia’s capital, Yichuan. It was officially inaugurated as a township in 1998 as part of a province-wide relocation program that the state justifies as part of a poverty alleviation agenda. According to official statistics, the city currently has around 220,000 residents, the majority of whom arrived after 2003.[17] As a relatively new urban settlement, Hongsibu has accumulated economic, social and cultural significance for recent immigrants from different areas across the province and beyond. The city is also home to the country’s National Museum of Immigration. With its monumental proportions, the museum functions as a celebratory and self-referential icon framing the construction of Hongsibu as a destination for displaced populations due to complicated ecological struggles, particularly desertification. As a proxy for state-sanctioned narratives, the contents of this museum offer a unique perspective on the mechanics, logistical inner workings, funding schemes and visual language of desert securitization. While adopting the lexicon of “progress,” “poverty alleviation” and “rehabilitation” the curated forms in the museum not only historicize, but also naturalize a highly regimented approach to land transformation.

One of the first visual cues that viewers are confronted with in the museum is aerial footage that depicts dozens of bulldozers flattening a terrain covered with sand dunes in preparation for a construction project. The same video immediately cuts to a pan over an industrial-scale vineyard, depicting workers in bright uniforms picking grapes. The projection ends with another aerial view of the newly constructed urban space, suggesting how the entire township was placed on top of a piece of land previously covered with sand. Across the room, an illuminated geopolitical map of the entire country depicts the origins and migration patterns of the city’s current residents. One particularly surprising fact illustrated by this map is that the majority of migrants were encouraged to relocate into the valley from regions higher on the Loushan Mountain and other landscapes much further from the dunes. In connection with the video that successfully aestheticizes defensive ecological engineering by emphasizing the role of collective action, this map highlights how residents of projects similar to Hongsibu have left previously dispersed pockets of population to establish larger, more centralized and resilient urban settlements closer to expanding deserts. By juxtaposing a sequence of scenarios where the “unbearable” conditions of the past are compared with a supposedly prosperous present, the action of gathering in defiance of destructive natural forces is viewed as a courageous achievement worthy of praise in the form of dedicated art and museum space.

Throughout the museum, the past is represented with images of unproductive farms partially covered with sand, herds of goats without any shrubs to graze on, depleted water wells and deteriorating façades of abandoned mud houses. In contrast, the present is depicted with glorified images of the new city’s wide roads, landscaped parks and industrial units. Of course, the military and its affiliates’ roles in the processes of reclaiming desert land for “productive” urbanization are never kept a secret. The main exhibition hall that directly references “green militarization”[18] is a multi-media installation depicting the use of military and paramilitary personnel, partnerships, and training facilities in pursuit of conservation efforts across the province. At the centre of the installation, two wax figures dressed in military camouflage stand with shovels next to a pile of poplar saplings. Close to them, a replica of a General’s outfit thrown on the ground and covered in dust suggests that even high-ranking personnel engage in tree planting. A screen shows a decorated commander standing with his gaze fixed on the horizon and his arm raised ordering troops to advance. The same display contains numerous images depicting thousands of soldiers arriving with water tankers and armoured trucks filled with saplings to partake in tree planting during and before spring sandstorm season. The soldiers are also shown constructing resettlement homes, laying irrigation canals and even sweeping dust off of surfaces in public spaces in the newly built city.

There are documents in the museum’s archives demonstrating the financial interests of multiple international entities in the anti-desertification efforts in this region.  For example, Middle Eastern investments are represented by a series of meeting minutes and official photographs indicating that the funds for establishing Hongsibu’s water infrastructure were provided through a multi-stage Kuwait-based loan. This water is supplied through a sophisticated system of canals and pumping stations that divert a portion of the Yellow River over the mountainous terrain north of the city and into the desert valley for residential, agricultural and industrial consumption. Considering the huge number of households and agricultural units in these extreme climatic conditions, the question of continued water supply is closely tied to concerns of safety and security. A wall-sized vinyl photograph depicting a group of local politicians and high-ranking military personnel tasting the water gushing from a pipe into a large basin makes the connection between military and financial interests ever more apparent.

Release of Kuwaiti Loan as part of Ningxia’s “poverty Alleviation” project. Source: Re-photographed image presented in Ningxia’s Musuem of Immigration.
Release of Kuwaiti Loan as part of Ningxia’s “poverty Alleviation” project. Source: Re-photographed image presented in Ningxia’s Musuem of Immigration.
Politicians and military personnel testing the water delivered through the new city’s water infrastructure. Source: Re-photographed image presented in Ningxia’s Musuem of Immigration.
Politicians and military personnel testing the water delivered through the new city’s water infrastructure. Source: Re-photographed image presented in Ningxia’s Musuem of Immigration.

All in all, the museum’s curatorial approach and visual language is dedicated to situating the struggles associated with desertification in contrast to the collective defensive efforts of armed forces and military units in building resilience.

As the museum’s contents historicize a very recent past and offer a particular heroic account of the fight against natural destruction, the city’s built forms occupy a similar conceptual place. For example, in the main square, precisely outside the museum, a massive artificial lake exists in a beautifully landscaped park. Keeping in mind Hongsibu’s extreme evaporation rates, the reservoir and its surrounding greenery function in stark contrast to the forestry planners’ deep efforts to save water for ecological preserves on the peripheries of the city and elsewhere in the province. The entire lake is fenced off with highly decorative marble balustrades, an architectural element that is common in traditional Chinese garden landscaping.

Marble Balustrades around Hongsibu’s artificial lake. Source: Photographed by Felix Kalmenson.
Marble Balustrades around Hongsibu’s artificial lake. Source: Photographed by Felix Kalmenson.

Like the museum, these balustrades operate as containers for the founding narratives of the city. The marble slabs bear twelve symbolic renderings that capture the breadth of activities contributing to the presumed success of the relocation programs. They begin with depictions of sand dunes, gradually shift to rendering a small variety of crops including grapes and corn, and end with illustrations of advanced solar farms and wind turbines on top of sand-covered hills. Observed in the context of combating desertification, in addition to the semiotic elements offered on the balustrades, the lake itself carries significant symbolic value. The cost of lost water due to evaporation is weighed against the lake’s psychological function as a message of achievement and builder of moral resilience. In other words, it is desired for a resident of the city to deduce that the architects of the resettlement plans in this county have thought, in great detail, about the emotional and psychological dimensions of leaving a place due to harsh climatic conditions and arriving at a large reservoir reminiscent of an oasis in the middle of the dunes.

To complicate and problematize the universalizing and simplified symbolic tropes presented in the museum and its planned surroundings, I pose a set of alternative accounts of the ongoing urbanization processes that emerged from visits to Loushan Heights, where the majority of Hongsibu’s residents left to move to lower ground in the city. These accounts were derived from conversations with the few residents who decided to either remain in or maintain a connection with the older settlements. These stories help support the conclusion that defensive ecological approaches carried out by forces close to the military and framed as a virtuous fight against nature is in fact a neoliberal exercise in centralized planning and revenue extraction in areas previously thought of as “wastelands.” My aim in emphasizing these counter-narratives is not to claim that ecological restoration or desert urbanization is inherently problematic. However, in the current market-oriented context it would be naïve to interpret such defensive approaches within poor communities in isolation from the complex power relations between states, rich private entities and powerful armed forces, particularly when their collaborations have neo-imperial and culturally homogenizing ambitions.

About thirty kilometers outside the county’s urbanized core, the first sights of villages previously inhabited by current residents of Hongsibu appear on both sides of the road. Multiple camouflaged watchtowers in the middle of these settlements chiefly target any herding activity that threatens the ultimate success of the afforestation initiative. Only a few kilometers further, as the villages grow in quantity and size, they mostly appear bordered off with barbed-wire fences and numerous cautionary flags warning against potential forest fires. Trespassing is also strictly forbidden. Almost all older residences that were most recently depopulated now fall under the Ministry of Forestry’s jurisdiction within Loushan Mountain’s ecological reserve. In contrast to the standardized resettlement homes closer to the city, the majority of the built structures in the villages are in vernacular styles of differing sizes and constructed in response to the particular herder economy and climatic conditions that have existed in these valleys for centuries. Although most of the structures have collapsed, there are still a few units that have glass-covered window frames and locks on their doors, indicating they are not entirely abandoned. The interlocking walkways and driveways between these old houses are now eroding and for the most part covered in multiple rows of a desert shrub specifically used in afforestation initiatives called Ning Tiao. A quick walk in some of these villages reveals numerous depleted water wells in proximity to each other, indicating ill-fated attempts to secure a reliable water source before the area was abandoned. The walking experience in these areas, especially on higher ground, is quite uncanny as hundreds of noisy wind turbines hover over the entire landscape including the area occupied by deteriorating houses.  

In organized efforts against desert expansion, over-grazing as a primary cause of vegetation loss is consistently emphasized by the states over factors such as industrial scale logging, hydrocarbon extraction and consumption, dam construction or the trickle-down effects of global warming. While those latter factors all substantially contribute to desertification, scholars debate the role of over-grazing.[19] Despite the ongoing argument however, defensive plans concerned with soil stabilization regularly place the blame on local shepherds with small-scale operations and vilify them in the same category as the natural forces they aim to combat. This attitude also exists in the settlements surrounding Hongsibu, where the Forestry Ministry has declared grazing illegal.  Enforcing such land regulations comes in direct contact with herders’ lived experiences, customary land-use practices and modes of revenue generation. For example, some of the narratives from a young shepherd “Ma” (names have been changed) demonstrate how the asymmetries of power between desert urban planners, forestry officers, armed forces in the region and the herding community greatly complicates the simplistic representation of anti-desertification efforts as a virtuous battle to secure human settlements against nature.

Ma’s extended family lives in Hongsibu, although they have also managed to keep a spatial relationship with their place of origin on the Loushan Heights. He explained that in the process of migrating to the city his elderly parents found it difficult to quickly re-skill and find secure jobs that would match their monthly income prior to the declaration of these areas as ecological reserves. Thus, they have continued to hold onto their ancestral occupation of keeping herds of sheep and goats. He frames his relationship with forestry officers as filled with tension as he has to constantly negotiate to keep his access to the old villages. According to him, they arrive in equipped SUVs every two weeks and hold two or three of his fattest goats ransom. If he pays them he is left alone for a period of time and if not the goats will be taken back to the city and sold in the market. Ma believes that the officer’s’ attitude does not reflect an interest in environmental protection but rather an active form of micro-managing the new economic order in these valleys. His account of the environmental impacts of grazing in the region also varies quite drastically from the Ministry of Forestry’s views. Explaining that the remaining residents of these villages and their families return every spring to plant Ning Tiao shrubs, mainly because the plants’ seeds are ideal for feeding livestock while their roots stabilize the soil, he argues that the loss of vegetation has been historically offset by the amount of replanting done by the shepherds themselves. He also interprets the Ministry’s politics and timing of excessive shrub plantation in these areas in a causal relationship with the depopulation of the villages. In his account of the events leading to the depletion of water sources, he identifies state-sanctioned seasonal shrub planting beginning in the early 2000s as a central cause of migration, explaining that the Ning Tiao has a deep root system that accesses underground reservoirs denying the water to other vegetation and users.

Seasonal Shrub plantation carried around Ningxia Province. Source: Re-photographed image presented in Ningxia’s Musuem of Immigration.
Seasonal Shrub plantation carried around Ningxia Province. Source: Re-photographed image presented in Ningxia’s Musuem of Immigration.

He believes that although replanting has helped decrease the frequency and intensity of sandstorms in the bottom of the valley, particularly Hongsibu, they had not been a problem in the villages on higher ground because the mountainous terrain acted as an effective natural barrier.

Another major economic force in the area, and entirely ignored in the official accounts offered by the museum, is the growing international investment in tourism. For instance, with Middle Eastern investments made since the inauguration of direct flights from Dubai to Yinchuan, less-damaged settlements—particularly those carved on the mountainsides—are preserved as historic anthropological attractions or future hotel sites for “disaster or desert tourism.” In other words, the declaration of these landscapes as an ecological reserve is doubling as a strategy for preserving the abandoned villages for their entertainment or anthropological value, to be extracted at a later date. These actions are especially questionable considering that the structures in these villages were actively occupied and used as homes until a decade ago. Another (perhaps more surprising) example of such investments is a large airfield adjacent to Loushan eco-reserve that is designated for hobbyist radio-controlled aircraft operators and balloon enthusiasts. The airfield is also home to an annual international airshow. Ironically enough, the seating areas provided for the airshow’s visitors are molded into the shape of a deforested landscape!

Foreground-Seating area for Hongsibu’s annual airshow in the shape of a deforested landscape. Background- Loushan Mountain. Source: Photographed by Felix Kalmenson.
Foreground-Seating area for Hongsibu’s annual airshow in the shape of a deforested landscape. Background- Loushan Mountain. Source: Photographed by Felix Kalmenson.

It is evident in Hongsibu’s struggles against desertification that defensive urban models are obliged to respond to the enormous financial and logistical needs of building resilience at continental scales, mainly by adopting techno-capitalist economic approaches that can extract revenue from the desert, a notable example of which is the international investments in sustainable energy sectors in this county. With the advent and expansion of desert tourism, these extractive approaches to dry landscapes are further pushed into the realm of entertainment, rendering the previously “unproductive” landscape valuable for its sublime qualities and the fear inscribed by its unimaginable force.




Although it is widely argued that desertification and “soil erosion result in part, from global forms of violence, especially human induced climate change,”[20] it is common for states and their powerful representatives to appropriate a causal argument that justifies defensive approaches directly vilifying ordinary land users and vulnerable communities around the edges of the desert. As discussed throughout this paper, regimented combat against natural destruction is a complex, multi-layered operation that couples militarized spatial tactics with extractive economic tools and ideological campaigns. Urbanizing sandscapes, a sophisticated solution inspired by an active management of populations around desert regions, is an issue closely tied to security and national sovereignty. Often the scale and cost of soil-stabilization projects present financial difficulties that can only be surmounted with international collaborations and investments. This necessitates that the materialization of afforestation agendas on continental scales engage a large number of actors who potentially occupy differing ends of an ideological or power spectrum. As a result, anti-desertification efforts perpetually intertwine politics of conservation with market forces, concerns around maintenance of sovereignty, and most importantly, the armed services of the government.

The case of Hongsibu that I have dissected from the differing perspectives of state-sanctioned history and its residents’ oral narratives is resonant beyond its geographical context. It offers interested planners and human geographers alike a detailed look into the role played by military specialists in anti-desertification efforts and draws a complicated picture of how large ecological defense plans materialize in specific built forms and urban strategies. The number of experienced international actors involved in developing this county suggests that the techniques and knowledge put into practice in this area are gathered and later shared amongst many nations who have similar ecological struggles. In this light, it is worth studying Hongsibu’s urban history and developing an understanding of the political economy of this recent urbanization project as a means of interpreting similar initiatives that engage with desert inhabitants and their settlement patterns as a tool of defense against the landscape.

The planners in Ningxia have engaged with the poetics and politics of desert urbanization in ways that reflect on the psychology of ecological migration. The fabrication of a monumental reservoir in the middle of a desert valley, for instance, acts as a means of maintaining morale for a promising future, despite the perpetual uncertainty that is associated with pumping water over a long distance for consumption in the dry valleys. As the contrast between the official representations of the Three-North Shelter Forest Program with the shepherds’ accounts reveal, militarized conservation efforts produce unforeseen results. A clear example of this is how the shrubs deployed in anti-desertification initiatives act as invasive vegetation, putting extra stress on already scarce water sources. Notably, the challenges posed by organized tree planting in Loushan Heights’ older villages served as a tool for persuading (if not forcing) populations to relocate into the sand dunes where they form the social fabric for environmentally resilient urban spaces.

Elsewhere, I discussed how the emphasis on de-territorialization, relocation and restriction of access as part of a response to the expanding desert makes for a specific place-making practice obsessed with spatial demarcation. This attitude reflects a militarized approach to spatial compartmentalization that grossly limits the mobility of poor and marginalized citizens, while ensuring the ever-increasing flow of capital and elite subjects beyond defined borders. The clearest evidence of the problems associated with this approach is the fact that despite frequent denial of access under the auspices of ecological preservation, fences have done little to regulate the global tourism industry’s activities and investments around Loushan Mountain.

Throughout this paper, I have argued that spatial planning for anti-desertification programs is a multifaceted exercise in defense. In conclusion, I reiterate that highly militarized defensive strategies preoccupied with forming resilience barely engage with the depth of causes for desertification. Activities such as continued coal and petroleum extraction, unsustainable urban development, industrial deforestation, and poor water management are proven contributors to global warming, and by extension desertification. However, the actions being taken against destabilized deserts overlook these factors to a worrying extent. The models currently in use stubbornly appropriate military language, spatial tactics, logics, and imagery with complete disregard for the vernacular practices of desert inhabitants whose modes of settlement and revenue generation have allowed them to sustain livelihoods over many centuries in these regions. Lastly, it is important to remember that the continued collaboration of urban planners and military specialists in the era of “natural securitization” has serious epistemological repercussions, undermining more creative approaches to solving the issue of desertification and sustainable development. The over-concentration of power in the hands of militarized entities has already resulted in well-documented unlawful activities. The corruption involving Hongsibu’s forestry officers is an important cautionary tale for planners that the reliance on regimented forms of border-making is misguided when it comes to developing strategies to minimize the effects of desertification. While theoretically seductive for states and temporarily successful in practice, relying on armed forces to interpret environmental disasters as a “battle against nature” yields minimal results in the long-term. This potent example of flawed planning should serve to encourage planners involved in environmental security to carefully engage in unpacking the role of military thinking, tactics and funding in developing disaster management plans. Questioning the power dynamics, politics and political economy of ecological defense schemes will assist planners in interpreting the notion of “environmentally resilient urban fabric” not as the enemy of “nature” but as an integral and reciprocal part of it.


I gratefully acknowledge the inspiring support of my collaborators Felix Kalmenson, Ash Moniz and Liu Chang throughout this project. I am also indebted to Professor Sharlene Mollet at University of Toronto’s School of Geography and Planning, and Charles Stankievech at the Visual Studies Department for their excellent teachings and feedback on earlier iterations of this paper. The finances for this research were provided by Si Shang Art Museum in Beijing.


BBC News. (2001). “China’s Great Green Wall.” Posted by the BBC, March 3, 2001. Accessed from

Davoudi, Simin. (2014). “Climate Change, Securitization of Nature, and Resilient Urbanism.” Environment and Planning C, 32 (2): 360-375.

Doyle, Alister. (2007). “Desertification Threat to Global Stability: U.N. Study.” Posted by Reuters News Service, June 27, 2007. Accessed from

Hill, Marquita K. (2004). Understanding Environmental Pollution: A Primer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jachec-Neale, Agnieszka. (2014). The Concept of Military Objectives in International Law and Targeting Practice. UK and New York: Routledge.

Li, Peilin, and Xiaoyi Wang. (2015). Ecological Migration, Development and Transformation: A Study of Migration and Poverty Reduction in Ningxia. Heidelberg: Springer.

Light, Jennifer S. (2008). “Urban Planning and Defense Planning, Past and Future.” Journal of the American Planning Association, 70 (4): 401-8.

Lunstrum, Elizabeth. (2014). “Green Militarization, Anti-Poaching Efforts and the Spatial Contours of Kruger National Park.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104 (4): 816-832.

Ma, Yonghuan, and Fan Shengyue. (2006). “The Protection Policy of Eco-Environment in Desertification Areas of Northern China: Contradictions and Countermeasures.” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 35 (3): 133-134.

Nixon, Rob. (2013). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Phifer, Michiko. (2012). A Handbook of Military Strategy and Tactics. New Delhi: Vij Books India Private Limited.

Trigg, Dylan. (2008). “Review of City of Panic, Paul Virilio.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 39 (1): 111.

Rowntree, Kate, Monde Duma, Vincent Kakembo, and J. B. Thornes. (2004). “Debunking the Myth of Overgrazing and Soil Erosion.” Land Degradation and Development, 15: 203–214.

Virilio, Paul. (2005). City of Panic. Oxford: Berg.

Wolf, Eric. (1982). Europe and People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.


[1] Jennifer S. Light, “Urban Planning and Defense Planning, Past and Future,” Journal of the American Planning Association 70, no. 4 (2008): 399.

[2] Dylan Trigg, “Review of City of Panic, Paul Virilio,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 39 no.1 (2008): 111.

[3] Paul Virilio. City of Panic, Oxford: Berg, (2005): 7.

[4] Nixon describes this term as “delayed [forms] destruction that [are] dispersed across time and space.” Rob Nixon. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. (Harvard University Press, 2013) 2.

[5] The production of the myth of empty land and lack of historical attachment for colonial subjects as a means of justifying violent attitudes in colonial expeditions and resource extraction is an idea I first came across in Eric Wolf, Europe and People Without History, Berkeley: University of California Press, (1982).

[6] Michiko Phifer, A Handbook of Military Strategy and Tactics, New Delhi: Vij Books India Private Limited, (2012):102.

[7] Rob Nixon. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, (2013): 131.

[8] See Alister Doyle, “Desertification Threat to Global Stability: U.N. Study,” Reuters News Service, June 27, 2007.

[9] Marquita K. Hill, Understanding Environmental Pollution: A Primer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2004): 140.

[10] “China’s Great Green Wall,” BBC, March 3, 2001. <>

[11] Yonghuan Ma and Fan Shengyue. 133.

[12] This process is demonstrated in Shabatou’s Desert Research Centre through diagrams, and is widely present in the landscape.

[13] Agnieszka Jachec-Neale, The Concept of Military Objectives in International Law and Targeting Practice, UK: Routledge, (2014):133.

[14] Ibid. P. 132.

[15] Peilin Li and Xiaoyi Wang, Ecological Migration, Development and Transformation: A Study of Migration and Poverty Reduction in Ningxia, Heidelberg: Springer, (2015): 3.

[16] Ibid, 102.

[17] Peilin Li and Xiaoyi Wang, 104.

[18] I borrow this term from Elizabeth Lundstrum, who theorizes it as an understudied concept that entails the increasing collaboration of military forces in environmental conservation efforts. See Elizabeth Lunstrum, “Green Militarization, Anti-Poaching Efforts and the Spatial Contours of Kruger National Park,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104, no. 4 (2004): 816-832.

[19] This is an ongoing debate with studies conducted in various locations. For a notable example of an argument against grazing’s severity of impact on erosion see: K. Rowntree, M. Duma, V. Kakembo and J. Thornes, “Debunking the Myth of Overgrazing and Soil Erosion,” Land Degradation and Development, 15 (2004): 203–214.  

[20] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, (2013): 131.  


No comments here