Desertification is a type of land degradation in which a relatively
dry area of land becomes increasingly arid, typically losing its
bodies of water as well as vegetation and wildlife. It is caused by
a variety of factors, such as through climate change (particularly the
current global warming) and through the overexploitation of soil
through human activity. When deserts appear automatically over the
natural course of a planet's life cycle, then it can be called a
natural phenomenon; however, when deserts emerge due to the rampant
and unchecked depletion of nutrients in soil that are essential for it
to remain arable, then a virtual "soil death" can be spoken of,
which traces its cause back to human overexploitation. Desertification
is a significant global ecological and environmental problem.
3 Areas affected
4 Vegetation patterning
7 Countermeasures and prevention
7.1 Managed grazing
8 See also
11 External links
Considerable controversy exists over the proper definition of the term
"desertification" for which Helmut Geist (2005) has identified more
than 100 formal definitions. The most widely accepted of these is
that of the
Princeton University Dictionary which defines it as "the
process of fertile land transforming into desert typically as a result
of deforestation, drought or improper/inappropriate agriculture".
Desertification has been neatly defined in the text of the United
Nations Convention to Combat
Desertification (UNCCD) as "land
degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions resulting
from various factors, including climatic variations and human
Another major contribution to the controversy comes from the
sub-grouping of types of desertification. Spanning from the very vague
yet shortsighted view as the "man-made-desert" to the more broad yet
less focused type as the "Non-pattern-Desert"
The earliest known discussion of the topic arose soon after the French
colonization of West Africa, when the Comité d'Etudes commissioned a
study on desséchement progressif to explore the prehistoric expansion
The world's most noted deserts have been formed by natural processes
interacting over long intervals of time. During most of these times,
deserts have grown and shrunk independent of human activities.
Paleodeserts are large sand seas now inactive because they are
stabilized by vegetation, some extending beyond the present margins of
core deserts, such as the Sahara, the largest hot desert.
Desertification has played a significant role in human history,
contributing to the collapse of several large empires, such as
Carthage, Greece, and the Roman Empire, as well as causing
displacement of local populations. Historical
evidence shows that the serious and extensive land deterioration
occurring several centuries ago in arid regions had three epicenters:
the Mediterranean, the Mesopotamian Valley, and the
Loess Plateau of
China, where population was dense.
Sun, Moon, and large telescopes above the desert
Drylands occupy approximately 40–41% of Earth’s land area
and are home to more than 2 billion people. It has been estimated
that some 10–20% of drylands are already degraded, the total area
affected by desertification being between 6 and 12 million square
kilometres, that about 1–6% of the inhabitants of drylands live in
desertified areas, and that a billion people are under threat from
As of 1998, the then-current degree of southward expansion of the
Sahara was not well known, due to a lack of recent, measurable
expansion of the desert into the
Sahel at the time.
The impact of global warming and human activities are presented in the
Sahel. In this area, the level of desertification is very high
compared to other areas in the world. All areas situated in the
eastern part of
Africa (i.e. in the
Sahel region) are characterized by
a dry climate, hot temperatures, and low rainfall (300–750 mm
rainfall per year). So, droughts are the rule in the
Some studies have shown that
Africa has lost approximately
650,000 km² of its productive agricultural land over the past 50
years. The propagation of desertification in this area is
Some statistics have shown that since 1900 the
Sahara has expanded by
250 km to the south over a stretch of land from west to east
6,000 km long. The survey, done by the research
institute for development, had demonstrated that this means dryness is
spreading fast in the Sahelian countries. 70% of the arid area has
deteriorated and water resources have disappeared, leading to soil
degradation. The loss of topsoil means that plants cannot take root
firmly and can be uprooted by torrential water or strong
The United Nations Convention (UNC) says that about six million
Sahelian citizens would have to give up the desertified zones of
Africa for North
Africa and Europe between 1997 and
Another major area that is being impacted by desertification is the
Gobi Desert. Currently, the Gobi desert is the fastest moving desert
on Earth; according to some researchers, the
Gobi Desert swallows up
over 1,300 square miles (3,370 km²) of land annually. This has
destroyed many villages in its path. Currently, photos show that the
Gobi Desert has expanded to the point the entire nation of Croatia
could fit inside its area. This is causing a major problem for the
people of China. They will soon have to deal with the desert as it
creeps closer. Although the
Gobi Desert itself is still a distance
away from Beijing, reports from field studies state there are large
sand dunes forming only 70 km (43.5 mi) outside the
As the desertification takes place, the landscape may progress through
different stages and continuously transform in appearance. On
gradually sloped terrain, desertification can create increasingly
larger empty spaces over a large strip of land, a phenomenon known as
"Brousse tigrée". A mathematical model of this phenomenon proposed by
C. Klausmeier attributes this patterning to dynamics in plant-water
interaction. One outcome of this observation suggests an optimal
planting strategy for agriculture in arid environments.
Preventing Man-made Overgrazing
Goats inside of a pen in Norte Chico, Chile.
Overgrazing of drylands
by poorly managed traditional herding is one of the primary causes of
Wildebeest in Masai Mara during the Great Migration.
not caused by nomadic grazers in huge populations of travel
herds, nor by holistic planned grazing.
The immediate cause is the loss of most vegetation. This is driven by
a number of factors, alone or in combination, such as drought,
climatic shifts, tillage for agriculture, overgrazing and
deforestation for fuel or construction materials. Vegetation plays a
major role in determining the biological composition of the soil.
Studies have shown that, in many environments, the rate of erosion and
runoff decreases exponentially with increased vegetation cover.
Unprotected, dry soil surfaces blow away with the wind or are washed
away by flash floods, leaving infertile lower soil layers that bake in
the sun and become an unproductive hardpan. Controversially, Allan
Savory has claimed that the controlled movement of herds of livestock,
mimicking herds of grazing wildlife, can reverse
A shepherd guiding his sheep through the high desert outside
At least 90% of the inhabitants of drylands live in developing
countries, where they also suffer from poor economic and social
conditions. This situation is exacerbated by land degradation
because of the reduction in productivity, the precariousness of living
conditions and the difficulty of access to resources and
A downward spiral is created in many underdeveloped countries by
overgrazing, land exhaustion and overdrafting of groundwater in many
of the marginally productive world regions due to overpopulation
pressures to exploit marginal drylands for farming. Decision-makers
are understandably averse to invest in arid zones with low potential.
This absence of investment contributes to the marginalisation of these
zones. When unfavourable agro-climatic conditions are combined with an
absence of infrastructure and access to markets, as well as poorly
adapted production techniques and an underfed and undereducated
population, most such zones are excluded from development.
Desertification often causes rural lands to become unable to support
the same sized populations that previously lived there. This results
in mass migrations out of rural areas and into urban areas,
particularly in Africa. These migrations into the cities often cause
large numbers of unemployed people, who end up living in
Agriculture is a main source of income for many desert communities.
The increase in desertification in theses regions has degraded the
land enough where people can no longer productively farm and make a
profit. This has negatively impacted the economy and increased poverty
Countermeasures and prevention
Anti-sand shields in north Sahara, Tunisia
Jojoba plantations, such as those shown, have played a role in
combating edge effects of desertification in the Thar Desert,
Techniques and countermeasures exist for mitigating or reversing the
effects of desertification, and some possess varying levels of
difficulty. For some, there are numerous barriers to their
implementation. Yet for others, the solution simply requires the
exercise of human reason.
One less difficult solution that has been proposed, however
controversial it may be, is to bring about a cap on the population
growth, and in fact to turn this into a population decay, so that each
year there will gradually exist fewer and fewer humans who require the
land to be depleted even further in order to grow their food.
One proposed barrier is that the costs of adopting sustainable
agricultural practices sometimes exceed the benefits for individual
farmers, even while they are socially and environmentally
beneficial. Another issue is a lack of political will, and lack of
funding to support land reclamation and anti-desertification
Desertification is recognized as a major threat to biodiversity. Some
countries have developed
Biodiversity Action Plans to counter its
effects, particularly in relation to the protection of endangered
flora and fauna.
Reforestation gets at one of the root causes of desertification and is
not just a treatment of the symptoms. Environmental organizations
work in places where deforestation and desertification are
contributing to extreme poverty. There they focus primarily on
educating the local population about the dangers of deforestation and
sometimes employ them to grow seedlings, which they transfer to
severely deforested areas during the rainy season. The Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations launched the FAO
Drylands Restoration Initiative in 2012 to draw together knowledge and
experience on dryland restoration. In 2015, FAO published global
guidelines for the restoration of degraded forests and landscapes in
drylands, in collaboration with the Turkish Ministry of Forestry and
Water Affairs and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency.
Currently, one of the major methods that has been finding success in
this battle with desertification. This is known as the Green Wall of
China. This wall is a much larger scaled version of what American
farmers did in the 1930s to stop the great Midwest dust bowl. This
plan was proposed in the late 1970s, and has become a major ecological
engineering project that is not predicted to end until the year 2055.
According to Chinese reports, there have been nearly 66,000,000,000
trees planted in China's great green wall. Due to the success that
China has been finding in stopping the spread of desertification,
plans are currently be made in
Africa to start a "wall" along the
borders of the
Sahara desert as well.
Techniques focus on two aspects: provisioning of water, and fixation
and hyper-fertilizing soil.
Fixating the soil is often done through the use of shelter belts,
woodlots and windbreaks. Windbreaks are made from trees and bushes and
are used to reduce soil erosion and evapotranspiration. They were
widely encouraged by development agencies from the middle of the 1980s
Sahel area of Africa.
Some soils (for example, clay), due to lack of water can become
consolidated rather than porous (as in the case of sandy soils). Some
techniques as zaï or tillage are then used to still allow the
planting of crops.
Another technique that is useful is contour trenching. This involves
the digging of 150 m long, 1 m deep trenches in the soil.
The trenches are made parallel to the height lines of the landscape,
preventing the water from flowing within the trenches and causing
erosion. Stone walls are placed around the trenches to prevent the
trenches from closing up again. The method was invented by Peter
Enriching of the soil and restoration of its fertility is often done
by plants. Of these, leguminous plants which extract nitrogen from the
air and fix it in the soil, and food crops/trees as grains, barley,
beans and dates are the most important. Sand fences can also be used
to control drifting of soil and sand erosion.
Some research centra (such as Bel-Air Research Center IRD/ISRA/UCAD)
are also experimenting with the inoculation of tree species with
mycorrhiza in arid zones. The mycorrhiza are basically fungi attaching
themselves to the roots of the plants. They hereby create a symbiotic
relation with the trees, increasing the surface area of the tree's
roots greatly (allowing the tree to gather much more nutrients from
As there are many different types of deserts, there are also different
types of desert reclamation methodologies. An example for this is the
salt-flats in the
Rub' al Khali
Rub' al Khali desert in Saudi-Arabia. These
salt-flats are one of the most promising desert areas for seawater
agriculture and could be revitalized without the use of freshwater or
Farmer-managed natural regeneration
Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) is another technique that
has produced successful results for desert reclamation. Since 1980,
this method to reforest degraded landscape has been applied with some
success in Niger. This simple and low-cost method has enabled farmers
to regenerate some 30,000 square kilometers in Niger. The process
involves enabling native sprouting tree growth through selective
pruning of shrub shoots. The residue from pruned trees can be used to
provide mulching for fields thus increasing soil water retention and
reducing evaporation. Additionally, properly spaced and pruned trees
can increase crop yields. The Humbo Assisted Regeneration Project
which uses FMNR techniques in Ethiopia has received money from The
World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund, which supports projects that sequester
or conserve carbon in forests or agricultural ecosystems.
It is argued that managed grazing methods are able to restore
Restoring grasslands store CO2 from the air into plant material.
Grazing livestock, usually not left to wander, would eat the grass and
would minimize any grass growth while grass left alone would
eventually grow to cover its own growing buds, preventing them from
photosynthesizing and killing the plant. A method proposed to
restore grasslands uses fences with many small paddocks and moving
herds from one paddock to another after a day or two in order to mimic
natural grazers and allowing the grass to grow optimally.
It is estimated that increasing the carbon content of the soils in the
world’s 3.5 billion hectares of agricultural grassland would offset
nearly 12 years of CO2 emissions. Allan Savory, as part of
holistic management, claims that while large herds are often blamed
for desertification, prehistoric lands used to support large or larger
herds and areas where herds were removed in the United States are
Wind erosion outside Leuchars
Soil retrogression and degradation
Earth sciences portal
Global warming portal
Sustainable development portal
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