Desertification is the process by which land turns into a desert. In other words, desertification is when land degrades over time and becomes more arid, causing the land to be less fertile and productive.
Desertification threatens human subsistence, as it makes natural resources including food and water much more difficult to obtain. This desertification facts sheet reviews the impacts of desertification around the world, as well as solutions and legislation to stop desertification.
Key Takeaways: Desertification around the World
The Problem: Desertification Is Increasing
- More than 100 countries are affected by desertification, with the poorest populations suffering most from its negative effects (Nat Geo 2019).
- Over 75% of Earth’s total land coverage is already degraded, and up to 90% may be degraded by 2050 (World Atlas of Desertification 2018).
- Desertification affects 74% of the poor population globally (UNEP 2020).
- Africa is one of the regions most affected by desertification, where 46 out of 55 countries are vulnerable to desertification’s negative effects (AGNES 2020).
- The human population continues to grow every year, reaching almost 8 billion this year (2022). Increased desertification makes it difficult to grow enough food to support the population.
Causes of Desertification
- There are many factors that cause desertification, including:
- Deforestation for urbanization and agricultural purposes
- Overgrazing of livestock
- Global warming, which triggers drought and wildfires
- Soil Pollution
Impacts of Desertification on Wildlife and Ecosystems
- Desertification reduces water availability. From 1970 to 2008, wetland areas have shrunk by about 30% globally (Wetland Extent Index 2016). This prevents vegetation growth, leading to the loss of habitat and food sources for animals, and thus loss of biodiversity and even species extinction (Nat Geo 2019).
- Desertification also accelerates climate change.
- Desertification leads to loss of plants that sequester carbon, leading to more carbon left in the atmosphere (Adeel et al. 2005).
- In areas affected by desertification, carbon uptake may be 27% lower (Mirzabaev 2019).
- Desertification can trigger the release of carbon stock sequestered in soil. Because of this, desertification and land degradation are considered major climate change accelerators (IUCN 2015).
- As a result of land degradation, around 66% of carbon stock previously stored in soil and plants has been released back into the atmosphere since the 19th century (IUCN 2015).
Impacts of Desertification on People and the Economy
- Agricultural production decreases by around 3% to 7% every year due to land degradation and desertification, particularly in under-developed countries (World Bank Document). The effects of desertification on agricultural production results in income loss and food insecurity (Mirzabaev 2019).
- As desertification reduces water availability, it increases the chance of diseases that result from unclean water and lack of proper hygiene (WHO 2020).
- Desertification increases the chance of respiratory health problems due to the decrease in air quality resulting from desertification-caused dust storms (WHO 2020).
- Desertification reduces crop yield, livestock production, and the availability of natural resources. Land degradation and desertification have resulted in an economic loss of over $490 billion USD globally (UNCCD 2013).
Solutions to Stop Desertification
- In order to solve the global problem of desertification, comprehensive policies for sustainable land management must be implemented. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was established to develop a global strategy to address desertification.
- Regenerative agriculture can prevent and reverse desertification by regenerating soil health, which allows soil to hold more water and sequester more carbon (Montgomery 2021).
- Cover cropping, planting other plants among crops, minimizes the chances of desertification by reducing the impact of soil-breaking forces such as rain, wind, and hurricanes. Cover cropping also protects soil from direct sunshine, preventing dryness and erosion, and promotes the growth of vital nutrients for the soil, thus improving its quality.
- Reforestation prevents desertification because trees increase soil quality, prevent erosion, and shade soil from the drying effects of the sun.
- In 1984, The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) created a legally binding international treaty to combat desertification in the most affected countries, with a focus on Africa.
- There is no specific legislation about desertification in the U.S., although the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was enacted to protect the environment and promote sustainable approaches that may encourage proper land management to prevent degradation.
- The European Union established the Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection in 2006 to promote sustainable land use.
- The European Union established the General Union Environment Action Programme (EAP) in 2014 to achieve sustainable land management and protection of soil from pollution.