In front of a steep, meter-high sand dune, Cheng Zhe stops his pickup. So far, the only obstacles he has come across during the 50-kilometer drive from his home to the edges of the Taklamakan Desert have been potholes the size of his truck’s tires.

A fence made from reeds to each side was meant to protect the asphalt from the encroaching sands, but from here on, the road belongs to the desert.

“It’s our way of stopping the desert from expanding,” Cheng said, eyeing the fence. In the face of the growing desert, the little reed fence had a short life span: Sand has gobbled it up, then spread out onto the bumpy road that leads through the Taklamakan Desert.

After the Sahara, the Taklamakan Desert is the world’s largest moving-sand desert. It covers vast swaths of northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region and stretches all the way to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan in the east, making it roughly the size of Germany. In the winter, temperatures can drop below minus 20 degrees Celsius.

And like other deserts in China, the Taklamakan is growing. The Gobi Desert, for example, devours 3,600 square kilometers of grassland each year.

Climate change is one reason for desertification. Another is human activity, such as overgrazing and deforestation, and a third can be attributed to farmers like the Chengs, who came to Xinjiang in the early ’90s to grow a crop that is among the most water-intensive in the world: cotton.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, the government encouraged people to grow cotton. Those already living in the area learned how to farm the cash crop, even as new settlers arrived to do the same.

The push for cotton production is now taking its toll on the arid region’s water resources, the land, and the people who have come to live on it.

“Land desertification is the most important ecological problem in China,” said Zhang Yongli of the State Forestry Administration, who cited erosion of habitable space, increased risk of natural disasters, and endangered agriculture as negative side effects of the phenomenon.

Cheng climbed into his pickup and threw it into gear, kicking up the desert sand as he sped back to Awat. The dunes slowly gave way to land that, bit by bit, began to look a little less hostile and a little more hospitable.

Shrubs and brush popped up, followed by Euphrates poplar trees, also known as desert poplars, as they are able to grow in arid regions with saline water. Many of the trees were planted for the express purpose of keeping the land from degrading and stopping the desert from expanding. Then came the fields of cotton, surrounding the first human settlement on this stretch along the periphery of the Taklamakan.

Most of Awat’s residents belongs to the mostly-Muslim Uyghur minority, some of whom feel more closely connected to Central Asia than Beijing. Han farmers like Cheng are in the minority.

At street stalls, Uyghurs bake crispy discs of traditional flatbread in round, smoky ovens. Next to them, men in leather jackets huddle over glowing coals to warm their hands in the sub-zero temperatures.

Cheng went to Beijing to work in e-commerce, got married, and recently had a son. But the 27-year-old has since returned to Xinjiang to help his family and start his own e-commerce business with his younger sister.

Life in the desert is easier and simpler, he said. Instead of cramming into a subway during rush hour in the capital, he can get up as late as 10 a.m. and still make it to his farmland in time to check on the cotton pickers.

More than 60 percent of China’s cotton is grown in Xinjiang. Much of the production started as part of the central government’s drive to develop the west, where some of the country’s poorest provinces are located. In the greater Aksu region, where Cheng is from, more than 13 percent of the village population lives below the poverty line, and almost 200 villages have been classified as “poverty villages.”

In their native province of Henan, in central China, the Chengs owned just one mu (around 660 square meters) of land, and they struggled to make ends meet. With the future of his two small children in mind, Cheng’s father, Cheng Jinyu, followed the path of his brother, who had moved to Xinjiang, been given a sizeable amount of land, and was doing well for himself.

Thanks to families like the Chengs, the province has doubled the amount of land allocated for cotton in the last 20 years.

As few other plants are able to survive on saline, arid land, cotton has become the go-to cash crop for many. The one thing it needs, however, is water — and lots of it. To produce 1 kilogram of cotton, as much as 20,000 liters of water is needed, or enough to fill 250 bathtubs. Eventually, this kilogram of cotton can be turned into one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.

Cheng’s family currently farms 1,000 mu of cotton. One mu, he said, produces about 300 kilograms of cotton — meaning the farm uses as much as 6 million liters of water annually.

And this presents a predicament: Growing cotton is one of few ways for farmers to support their families, yet it concurrently depletes the parched region of its precious water, in turn degrading the soil and eventually leading to desertification, rendering the land all but uninhabitable.

Cheng Jinyu estimates that today he has about half as much water to irrigate his land as he did a decade ago. “Planting cotton has become more and more difficult because the water shortage is so bad,” he said. “It’s getting worse every year.”

Farmers in Awat have dug elaborate canals and levees to divert water from the Yarkand River to their farms. In years past, the river, a headstream of the Tarim, China’s longest inland river, now only provides enough water in July and August.

The rest of the year, farmers draw water from wells. But groundwater isn’t as good for agriculture, and to reach it, wells now have to go 100 meters deep, compared to around 70 meters before. The groundwater is so salty, one farmer said, that it barely keeps the cotton from drying out.

Salt is ubiquitous in Awat. In fact, salinity is so high that salt accumulates on the surface of the soil, covering it in white crystals that resemble snow. Even the tea served in restaurants, brewed with groundwater, tastes salty.

Every year, 120,000 square kilometers of land across the world become barren due to desertification and drought, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

“Desertification has become a crucial environmental problem at a global scale, and has begun to affect the survival and socioeconomic development of humankind,” wrote a team of Chinese researchers in a 2015 study on desertification.

In large parts of Ningxia, centuries of land mismanagement have led to such severe desertification that the areas are now considered among the world’s least habitable areas for human beings. More than 1 million people have already been relocated, making up China’s largest group of climate migrants.

In Xinjiang, the central government is eager to improve the local environment and to create jobs — an effort that President Xi Jinping and state news agency Xinhua have said will eventually resolve the ethnic tensions and separatist violence that have long plagued the region.

Xinjiang is also part of the central government’s “New Silk Road,” or “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which will link China with Central Asia and Europe. With Beijing’s ambitious plans for the region, preserving the land seems to be in everyone’s best interests.

Several years ago, the government put a cap on the number of cotton farms and divvied up water resources among existing ones. This year, Xinjiang will convert a minimum of 1.5 million mu of farmland from cotton to less water-intensive crops. More water-efficient irrigation, like drip systems which slowly release small amounts of water through plastic tubes buried in the soil, has also been installed.

To improve the farmers’ incomes during a time when global cotton prices were low, the government stockpiled cotton to cause the market price to trend upward — a policy that failed and had to be replaced by a subsidy. For the past three years, this subsidy has accounted for the bulk of farmers’ incomes. The amount they receive changes each year, depending on global market prices and the size of the farmers’ land and yield.

Among the farmers, the size of the subsidy is a common topic of conversation during meals. This year, especially, the extra cash will be sorely needed: Due to a lack of fresh water, farmers had to use the river’s salty water to irrigate their fields. This caused the cotton to bloom later than usual, and once it finally did, the farmers couldn’t find enough hands to help pick it, which delayed the harvest, Cheng said.

Last week, it snowed — a gleeful day for the children of Awat, but another blow to the county’s cotton farmers. Snow, Cheng explained, turns the cotton yellow, and factories will only pay up to three-quarters of the market price for discolored tufts.

According to Cheng Jinyu’s calculations, the government subsidy is the only way for the farmers to make any money at all.

On the bone-dry land along the edges of the Taklamakan, Cheng Jinyu was able to forge a better life for his family. But things have changed. Now, he sees little future in cotton farming, and his son agrees.

With his wife and son now in Beijing, the younger Cheng plans to head back to the city soon to set up an e-commerce business. Besides, he said, his father has already taken as much as the land will give.

“There is so little room to achieve more here,” he said. “So I don’t intend to stay.”

(The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.)

Editor: Olivia Yang