» Geography of the Desertification

Geography of the Desertification

SINCE THE mid-1970s, the United Nations (UN) has considered desertification a significant environmental problem involving high economic, societal, and human costs. The UN’s Conference on Desertification, held in 1977, outlined an action plan over a 20-year period that, unfortunately, did little to change the course of desertification. The definition of desertification itself is controversial. In 1991, the UN Environment Program defined it as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry subhumid areas, resulting mainly from adverse human impact.” In 1992, the UN convened the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) to draw up formal measures that included setting up a Committee on Desertification to review reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, preserving biodiversity, and protecting international waters. The official draft of the UNCED report expanded the definition of desertification to: “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities.” The World Bank defines desertification as “a process of sustained decline of the biological productivity of arid and semiarid land; the end result is desert of skeletal soil that is irrecuperable [sic]. Common indicators include a reduction in the amount of diversity of plant and animal species, loss of water-retention capacity, lessened soil fertility, and increasing wind and water erosion.” The key issue in desertification is the presence of climate variation, as experts point out that the more important dimension of the problem refers not to the expansion of existing deserts, but to the result of human activity in dry land masses, as land is exploited and inappropriately managed. Desertification is not only intrusion by sand dunes; it is gradual loss of soil fertility from excessive cultivation or grazing, destruction of trees and shrubs for firewood, and the lack of effective water resource management. Desertification can happen through natural causes in any climate zone. The areas at risk are mainly in Africa, but also extend to Asia and the Americas, including the western portion of the continental United States. The expansion of such vast deserts as the Sahara, Gobi, and the Arabian are not the main concern, scientists say. Rather, areas that are gradually drying out, making the practice of farming progressively unsustainable, are becoming sources of global ecological and human concern. In marginal areas, where natural resources are depleted over time and the land becomes unproductive, starvation may ensue.

The UN reports that, currently, desertification affects about 8.9 billion acres (3.6 billion hectares) or 70 percent of all “dry” lands across the globe. That is nearly one-fourth of the total land area on Earth, affecting about 1 sixth of the world’s population. Over 1 billion people all over the world are affected by drought and desertification. Populations in these areas occupy about one-fourth of our planet and face major catastrophes as a result of such climate change, including deterioration of vulnerable land, and eventually chronic food insecurity and starvation. As desertification takes hold, farmers give up trying to grow crops and move to cities in search of work. Cities are then faced with deciding how to deal with resulting overpopulation and lack of sufficient food resources. The ultimate consequences of desertification include economic loss, poverty, famine, human suffering, and widespread death. Strategies to deal with desertification address poverty, land ownership, and social structures. Because large regions generally suffer an inability to maintain adequate standards of living for their population when desertification occurs, the expanding loss of productive lands has a domino effect, bringing down entire communities. Naturally occurring processes formed deserts over long periods of time, and over time, most deserts have grown and shrunk, irrespective of human intervention. In many cases, desert edges may become more humid than dry, making it harder to define a desert border. These areas maintain very fragile ecosystems because of different climates. Small hollows may support vegetation that insulates heat and protects the area from winds, and these vegetated areas may be cooler than their surroundings, resulting in various microclimates. If humans are involved in using these areas for farming, for example, they may stress the ecosystem beyond its capacity, resulting in more degradation of the land. Overpopulation and resulting excessive cultivation and grazing leads to falling soil fertility and lesser crop growth. Exposed topsoil is further eroded by the elements and is conducive to surface runoff and erosion. Eventually, this vicious cycle results in destruction of crops and more infertile land. Overgrazing is a significant factor in land destruction that causes a decline in vegetation including grasses; excessive grazing results in the replacement of perennial grass species with species of forbs (weeds) that do not hold soil as efficiently as grass does. Soil is also compacted by livestock trampling near watering holes, and dunes are overrun and destabilized after relatively short periods of grazing time. These cumulative processes cause a significant decline in the health of the very animals that depend on the land for sustenance, as well as the often permanent and irreversible result of desertification.

The UN has identified various strategies to reduce further land erosion. Early warning systems and knowledge of water resource management techniques assist communities to maintain the integrity of land. Careful land and livestock management is essential to preserve fertile ground, and the use of special seeding techniques over sand dunes can manage vegetation. Narrow strip planting and reforestation of new species and varieties that can tolerate extreme weather conditions are other effective ways to regenerate crops and native flora. Sheltering of native plants is important in maintaining ecological balance, so “social forestry,” a process in which villagers take responsibility for forests that surround their village, is a method of empowering those directly impacted by the degradation of productivity. Global awareness is essential in understanding the magnitude of desertification. Unlike other catastrophic natural disasters—such as cyclones, for instance—desertification happens over a long period of time; it is thus easier for communities to overlook its effects and adjust to the status quo. As such adaptation exacerbates the social effects of desertification, governments need to take the lead in preparing communities to deal with the problem. The UN’s Convention to Combat Desertification Treaty, ratified in 1996, is intended to promote effective local programs and international partnerships to combat the problem globally. The World Bank has also cooperated in the global effort to stem the destruction of land by deploying and mobilizing its resources in concert with global needs. Education, focusing especially on local and international actions that threaten landmass, is needed to develop positive changes that can result in increased food security and amounts of land available for food production. Desertification is not an easily solved problem for a government and its people. It is difficult for citizens to understand that they must be more responsive to land use issues. Countries that may not be directly affected should take into consideration the global seriousness of desertification and take steps to alleviate its effects and prevent its expansion. Desertification causes increased flows of refugees, which affect all countries because migration almost certainly ensues when a land region cannot sustain its native population. Countries are often forced to take on fleeing immigrants, and other countries find themselves having to commit scarce financial resources to combat—or help other nations combat—the catastrophic effects of desertification. Desertification is a global problem with devastating results for planet Earth.
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