The Chinese capital has been battered by several sandstorms over the past two months, prompting the communist government to step up efforts to combat desertification. China is losing thousands of square kilometers of arable land to the deserts each year - the fastest rate in the world. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Beijing.

Springtime in Beijing means sandstorms -- a reminder that the desert is advancing. Scientists say the deserts of northern and western China are expanding by several hundred thousand square kilometers a year.

They estimate that in just a few years, the Chinese capital could be covered with silt. Officials fear much of the nation could look like that unless they speed up efforts to stop the advance of the deserts.  The cause: centuries of overgrazing and forest clearing.

The government has spent billions of dollars and mobilized thousands of rural residents over the past decade in tree-planting campaigns.

Government officials are keen to show off their efforts, which have been intensified after international criticism. South Korea and Japan have blasted Beijing for not doing enough to control the dust clouds that foul the air over their territories.

Cao Qingyao, a spokesman for China's State Forestry Administration, took journalists to desert areas in Hebei province, just 100 kilometers northwest of Beijing.  He says Japan and South Korea should not blame China for their dust problems. The official says Beijing has made great strides in combating desertification and he says China is, in fact, a victim of the problem.

But critics say the Chinese government is relying too much on highly visible methods, like planting trees. Grass, they say, is more effective in holding the topsoil in place, but is not as likely to be noticed by officials who approve the funding for anti-desertification projects.

Christopher Flavin, head of the Worldwatch Institute, was recently in China to talk about the country's environmental challenges. He says Beijing will have no choice but to come up with a more effective approach. "Environmental damage is going to become a major threat to economic development," says Flavin.

Environmentalists say the only real solution is to ease pressure on the land, a monumental task for a nation that is struggling to feed itself. In the past decade, China has gone from being an exporter of grain to an importer.