"Every year we plant trees, but every year we plant trees in the same place," this was a popular jingle in Aksu Prefecture of China's northwestern Xinjiang region, as plantation drives here failed in the last one century since the end of the Qing Dynasty.
The ecosystem of this area is extremely fragile and vulnerable as it sits on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, the world's second-largest shifting sand desert.
Even three decades ago, none could believe that the region, tormented by sandstorms for three months every year, would ever see green corridors to save its people from wild nature. Back then, it was jokingly said a bowl of rice on the dining table even in a closed room would be filled with dust after a sandstorm.
Now the Ke Ke Ya area, once a major source of sandstorms for downtown Aksu and Wensu counties, has green lines of trees along highways and barren plains, even a national wetland park to the respite of people and white birds and animals.
In Wensu county nearby, locals dug canals to use underground water to grow flowers and trees at the end of the Qing Dynasty a century ago, but those efforts failed after spending huge labour and money, leaving only a few broken canal wells.
Afforestation in the semi-desert plains started to see success in the mid-1980s when local authorities engaged community people, soldiers and officials to plant trees.
Officials at the Ke Ke Ya Memorial Centre described on 23 July how Aksu Prefecture succeeded in its four-decade struggle in greening the desert land and reducing sandstorms to only 20 days from three months a year in the past.
The afforestation efforts in this semi-desert land at last started giving dividends as Aksu Prefecture completed several ecological restoration and desertification control projects and finally, built a green miracle in the desert, planting millions of trees, mostly white poplars, known among the ethnic communities as 'king of desert' as they can grow and survive drought.
As of the end of 2022, Aksu Prefecture completed ecological conservation on 1,760 square kilometres of land, restored ecology in mine pits and protected river banks. It also covered thousands of hectares of land with vegetation, apart from land consolidation, water treatment and prevention of soil erosion.
Quotes from Chinese President Xi Jinping, also the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), are there on the display boards affixed to the wall of the memorial centre, setting the central government's priorities to improve rural habitat towards building a well-off society.
One of them reads "to build a good ecological and liveable beautiful countryside so that the majority of farmers have more sense of access and happiness in the revitalisation of the countryside."
Under the government-led afforestation drive, the local government in Aksu implemented rural habitat improvement projects for garbage and sewage treatment, sanitation improvement and village landscaping with a focus on environmental improvement through comprehensive and in-depth plans to beautify the countryside.
For decades since 1986, Aksu's greening projects in the Ke Ke Ya area gradually advanced in a difficult and tortuous way mainly due to high management costs, insufficient management and care forces, and lack of follow-up funds.
The region began to change its way in 2005, engaging social forces in greening construction. Since then, people of different ethnic communities and places joined the initiatives, defying the hardships of the wild nature.
In the face of the severe existential crisis, the Aksu local committee realised more and more profoundly that it was necessary to curb the wind and sand, reduce the threat of desert and improve the living environment of all ethnic groups.
"Today, their descendants live in this forest, they are bonded with trees, becoming each other's strongest reliance," reads a piece in the display board highlighting the success of the afforestation drives.
As water resources are scarce and unevenly distributed for the lack of perfect water conservancy infrastructure, people in the region had difficulties getting drinking water and had to rely on the manually collected artesian water from Tianshan Mountain snowmelt. Tree plantation efforts failed time and again due to drought and lack of water.
Located at the foot of Tianshan Mountain, Aksu Prefecture is a dry region with a warm continental climate, low rainfall, high evaporation and an average annual precipitation of 56.7 mm.
With an area nearly the size of Bangladesh, the whole region is covered 29.4% by mountains and 31% by desert which causes wind and sand storms, further desertification, salinisation and soil erosion. Wetland degradation is serious and forest resources are insufficient, leaving it with an extremely fragile ecological environment.
That is why Aksu has insisted on overall environmental protection, along with Aksu and Weigan rivers basin management, ecological restoration of the Khongdailiq region and desert management in the Aishman Lake region.
In 2021, the prefecture undertook a three-year holistic project to conserve and restore mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes and grasslands as well as manage deserts. Special focus was also given to the management of the basin of the Tarim River, which is the lifeline for Xinjiang's economic development, ecology and livelihood.
The ecological forests drive, which followed repeated research, started to control wind and sand in the area with the conscious participation of Aksu people in planting trees, said a narrator, translated into English, at the Ke Ke Ya Memorial Centre.
After achieving success in afforestation with community people's engagement, Aksu later focused on economic crops to encourage local people to plant on their own and get benefits from harvests of delicious fruits that find their way to far-away cities and across the borders.
From the rooftop of the multi-storey centre, a wide view of greenery can be found, with planned orchards being created between the vast social forests of white poplar that stand against the sand storm and wild wind.
The open canal goes in parallel to the main highway leading to the airport as the lone source of water for plants and vegetation in the areas that see low rainfall and high evaporation.
Once a semi-desert area, Aksu is now visited by a growing number of people from near and far away. Its green corridors have changed the urban landscape and the well-managed rivers, lakes and the national wetland park are now home to white birds and animals.