Environment (other)

What Causes Desertification?

Editorial staff
By Editorial staff. June 16, 2024
What Causes Desertification?

The threat of desertification to ecosystems, livelihoods, and food security is one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. During this process, fertile lands are transformed into arid, unproductive terrain, largely due to climate change and unsustainable human activities such as deforestation, overgrazing, and poor agricultural practices. Understanding the causes and consequences of desertification is crucial for developing effective strategies to combat it.

This AnimalWised article explores what desertification is, including its causes, consequences, and the most effective measures to counteract this degradation.

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  1. What is desertification?
  2. Difference between desertification and land degradation
  3. Causes of desertification
  4. Types of desertification
  5. Consequences of desertification
  6. Possible solutions for desertification

What is desertification?

Desertification is a creeping menace that transforms previously productive land into arid wastelands. This process involves a steady decline in moisture, leading to the degradation of fertile soil, the disappearance of vegetation cover, and the loss of once-abundant water sources.

This isn't the dramatic transformation of lush landscapes into sprawling deserts, but the permanent degradation of once-productive land that could sustain crops. Biodiversity suffers as the ecosystem struggles to adapt to the increasingly harsh conditions.

While the term itself might have nuances, the main concern is the human-driven degradation happening in drylands: arid, semi-arid, and sub-humid areas already struggling with low and unpredictable rainfall.

The consequences of desertification are dire. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) estimates a staggering 100 million hectares of productive land are lost globally each year. With droughts becoming more prevalent and water scarcity projected to affect three-quarters of the population by 2050, the urgency to address desertification is undeniable.

The result is a devastating chain reaction, soil erosion, leading to lost water retention and plant life. Shockingly, around 2 billion people currently inhabit these vulnerable drylands, with an estimated 50 million potentially displaced by 2030.

This threat is widespread, impacting over 100 countries and hitting some of the poorest and most vulnerable populations the hardest. Subsistence farming, common in many affected regions, makes these communities particularly reliant on healthy land.

Expand your desert knowledge. Our next article dives into the types of deserts found around the globe.

Difference between desertification and land degradation

Desertification and land degradation are not synonymous. Desertification, as mentioned earlier, specifically refers to the process by which fertile land becomes desert as a result of various factors such as climate change and human activities. This process results in the transformation of productive land into a desert-like state, characterized by the loss of vegetation and soil fertility.

Land degradation, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses various forms of soil and environmental degradation, which can include but is not limited to desertification. It refers to the decline in land quality caused by factors such as deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, and industrial activities.

Desertification can be considered a specific form of land degradation that occurs in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. As land becomes degraded and loses its productivity, it can eventually undergo desertification, leading to the formation of desert-like conditions. While the two processes are related and often overlap, it is important to recognize that desertification is a specific phenomenon within the broader context of land degradation.

What Causes Desertification? - Difference between desertification and land degradation

Causes of desertification

Desertification is driven by a complex interplay of natural and human-induced factors:

  • Rising temperatures: increased heat leads to higher evaporation rates, reducing soil moisture and making the land more susceptible to drought.

  • Shifting weather patterns: changes in rainfall patterns can result in prolonged droughts, further exacerbating desertification.

  • Increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events: heavy storms and floods can cause soil erosion, while heatwaves can further dry out the land.

  • Deforestation: removal of trees and other vegetation exposes the soil to erosion and reduces its ability to retain moisture.

  • Overgrazing: excessive livestock grazing prevents vegetation from regenerating and compacts the soil, hindering its water infiltration capacity.

  • Unsustainable agricultural practices: practices like monoculture, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and inefficient irrigation lead to soil degradation and depletion of nutrients.

  • Urbanization and infrastructure development: urban sprawl replaces natural landscapes with impermeable surfaces, disrupting natural drainage patterns and reducing water infiltration. Construction activities can also compact soil.

  • Water mismanagement: over-extraction of groundwater resources for agriculture, domestic use, and industrial purposes can lower water tables and deprive ecosystems of necessary moisture.

  • Soil erosion: both wind and water erosion can remove fertile topsoil, leaving behind barren land.

  • Population pressure: growing populations increase demand for food, water, and land, leading to potential overexploitation of resources.

  • Economic factors: poverty can force people to rely on unsustainable land use practices to meet their basic needs, while market demands for certain crops or products can incentivize unsustainable agriculture.

Think you know what desert weather is like? Prepare to be surprised by the diversity of desert climates in our next article.


Types of desertification

Desertification isn't an overnight event; it unfolds in stages, each marked by a worsening decline in land health and productivity.

Moderate desertification

Reduced soil fertility becomes evident, but some vegetation and crop growth are still possible. Yields decrease by 10-25% compared to original levels.

Severe desertification

Soil degradation accelerates, leading to a noticeable decrease in vegetation cover and crop yields. Land productivity suffers a significant setback, with a 25-50% loss in yields.

Very severe desertification

Very severe desertification signifies a critical tipping point where the land undergoes a dramatic transformation. Large areas of the landscape become dominated by dry, barren soil, with minimal vegetation cover. Wind erosion intensifies, leading to the accumulation of windblown sand, sculpting the land with dunes. Land productivity plummets by over 50%, rendering it largely unsuitable for growing crops.

At the very severe stage, the land loses its ability to support most natural vegetation and crops. This highlights the importance of early intervention to prevent desertification from reaching this critical point.

Consequences of desertification

Desertification is a gradual but severe process that can have devastating effects on the environment and human populations:

  • Forests provide vital homes for countless plant and animal species. Deforestation destroys these habitats, leading to species loss and disrupting the delicate balance of ecosystems.

  • Trees act as anchors, holding soil in place with their roots. Removing them exposes the soil to wind and water erosion, washing away nutrients and fertile topsoil. This reduces land productivity for agriculture and can lead to sedimentation issues in waterways.

  • Forests play a crucial role in regulating the water cycle. They absorb rainwater, slowly releasing it into the ground and atmosphere. Deforestation disrupts this process, leading to increased runoff and flash flooding during heavy rains, followed by periods of drought.

  • Trees act as carbon sinks, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Deforestation releases this stored carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and its associated problems like rising temperatures and extreme weather events.

  • Many communities, particularly indigenous populations, rely on forests for their livelihoods. Activities like hunting, gathering, and non-timber forest products (fruits, nuts, medicinal plants) become threatened with deforestation.

  • Deforestation leaves land exposed and vulnerable to desertification, especially in arid and semi-arid regions. This can further reduce land productivity and contribute to food insecurity.

Deserts may seem far removed from raging waters, but they're not entirely disconnected. Read on to learn about the link between desertification and floods in our next article.

Possible solutions for desertification

Desertification poses a significant threat to global food security and ecosystem health. Thankfully, there are solutions to combat desertification, requiring a multifaceted approach that addresses its underlying causes:

  • Crop rotation: rotating crops helps maintain soil fertility and prevent nutrient depletion.

  • Cover cropping: planting cover crops between main planting seasons protects soil from erosion, adds organic matter, and suppresses weeds.

  • Reduced tillage: minimizing soil disturbance reduces erosion and helps retain moisture.

  • Agroforestry: integrating trees with crops can provide shade, reduce wind erosion, and improve soil fertility.

  • Water-saving irrigation practices: techniques like drip irrigation deliver water directly to plant roots, minimizing waste.

  • Rainwater harvesting: collecting and storing rainwater provides a valuable source of irrigation water.

  • Improved water infrastructure: upgrading canals and pipelines can reduce water loss through leakage.

  • Planting trees in degraded areas: reforestation efforts increase vegetation cover, improve soil health, and reduce erosion.

  • Land rehabilitation techniques: techniques like contour plowing and terracing can help manage water flow and prevent erosion.

  • Protected areas: establishing protected areas helps safeguard critical ecosystems from further degradation.

  • Sustainable grazing practices: managing livestock numbers and grazing patterns can prevent overgrazing.

  • Land-use planning: zoning and regulations can help prevent unsustainable practices and promote responsible land use.

Desertification may be a major concern, but it's just one piece of the environmental puzzle. Learn about the broader concept of environmental degradation in our next article

What Causes Desertification? - Possible solutions for desertification

If you want to read similar articles to What Causes Desertification?, we recommend you visit our Environment (other) category.

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