What Is Desertification?
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 article will review desertification in Ethiopia, including where it’s happening in Ethiopia, why it’s happening, how it’s impacting the country, and potential solutions.
Learn more: What Is Desertification?
Table of Contents
Fast Facts about Desertification in Ethiopia
- 71.5% of land coverage in Ethiopia is affected by desertification (Hawando 2000).
- Approximately 2 billion metric tons of available arable soil are degraded every year in Ethiopia (Food and Agriculture Organization).
- Ineffective land management, increasing population, overgrazing, deforestation, and climate change are the main drivers of desertification in Ethiopia (Food and Agriculture Organization).
Where Is Desertification Happening in Ethiopia?
Desertification occurs in drylands, which are areas that get less rain than is evaporated or consumed by plants through part of a year or the entire year. Drylands have very limited water and soil moisture.
Ethiopia is experiencing desertification mainly because of man-made factors, but the country’s vulnerability to desertification is greatly amplified by the country’s drought-prone climate in some of its regions.
The map below shows the agro-ecological zones in Ethiopia. As can be seen on the map, a large part of the country’s land area is considered dry, which makes these regions vulnerable to land degradation and desertification (shown in shades of orange).
Read more about desertification in Africa: Desertification in Africa
Why Is Desertification Happening in Ethiopia?
Desertification is caused by multiple factors, including natural causes and human activities. In Ethiopia, desertification is primarily driven by climate change amplified by the overuse of natural resources and population growth.
Extreme weather events like drought are a major driver of desertification and are becoming more intense and more frequent as a result of climate change (UNFCCC 2020). Drought is one of the greatest challenges in Ethiopia that contributes significantly to land degradation and desertification. In 2022, Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years, which directly affects the food availability and livelihoods of 7 million people in the country (World Bank Org. 2022).
The climate in Ethiopia is expected to become warmer, with an increase in temperature from approximately 1.4 °C to 2.9 °C in 2050. These increased temperatures will increase desertification, which in turn will likely reduce economic growth, and may reverse the economic progress created in previous years (Simane et al 2017).
Ineffective Land Management & Resource Use
Ethiopia accommodates the largest population of livestock in all of Africa, with approximately 65 million cattle, 40 million sheep, and 51 million goats (Central Statistics Agency 2020). As a result, Ethiopian lands are vulnerable to overgrazing. This exposes the soil to extreme heat, which can accelerate evaporation and result in more desertified land.
Furthermore, biofuels such as dung, wood, and other agricultural residues are the primary fuel source in Ethiopia, accounting for 90% of the country’s overall energy supply. This high demand for biofuels has become one of the main drivers of land degradation and desertification in Ethiopia (Benti et al 2021). When the demand for dung as a fuel source increases, so does the population of grazing animals that produce dung, leading to overgrazing. The high demand for woods as fuel source, on the other hand, encourages deforestation, which can lead to land degradation due to the absence of nutrients and services that trees provide to keep the soil healthy and fertile.
Population Growth and Urbanization
Ethiopia is the second most populated country in Africa, with a population of 114,963,588 in 2022. As the population grows in the next decades, Ethiopia’s population might reach 300 million by 2050, which will result in an increase in demand for food, energy, and natural resources (Solomon et al 2016). This could contribute significantly to land degradation and desertification in the country if not produced in a sustainable manner.
Increasing land cultivation in Ethiopia to meet the rising demand of the country’s growing population leads to deforestation and a decline in ground vegetation cover, which contributes significantly to land degradation and desertification (Solomon et al 2016).
The graph below shows Ethiopia’s population increase from the 1800s to 2020. Today’s rapid population growth will likely contribute to the country’s rising desertification.
Impacts of Desertification
Desertification is already having severe impacts in Ethiopia and will continue to cause harm both to human economies and subsistence styles, and the environment.
Reduced Food Security
Approximately 2 billion metric tons of available arable soil degrades every year in Ethiopia (Food and Agriculture Organization). This annual massive loss of arable land lowers crop yields, which promotes food insecurity, especially in rural communities (Gebreselassie et al 2015).
Increased Health Problems
Desertification may lead to an increased risk of water and food-borne diseases. This is partially due to a lack of clean water (Mirzabaev et al. 2019).
Reduced food security in Ethiopia due to the decrease of arable land in rural areas also contributes to malnutrition; in fact, 27% of women and 38% of children in Ethiopia suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth as a result of intense drought, which promotes land degradation and desertification, reducing the availability of nutritious food for the communities.
Restricted Economic Development
Approximately 67% of Ethiopia’s population depends on agriculture for a living. As desertification increases, it becomes more difficult for farmers and ranchers to make a living growing food or supporting livestock. This will also affect the country’s economy since agriculture accounts for 40% of its total GDP.
Solutions to Desertification in Ethiopia
Many solutions have been developed and some have been implemented to try and address desertification in Ethiopia. This article discusses a few solutions, but a wide variety of community-based approaches are needed to address the problem of desertification.
The Ethiopian government created the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) in 2010 to build a long-term national solution intended to shift farming in Ethiopia to sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices, farming practices that help protect soil health and the environment as a whole.
One of ATA’s programs that directly addresses desertification is the Soil Health and Fertility Project. This project covers the implementation of Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS). This system identifies soil conditions and soil fertility rates from different agricultural areas across the country through laboratory soil testing analysis. Using this information, EthioSIS provides accurate fertilizer use recommendations, depending on soil condition and fertility rate. in order to regenerate soil health. The government also uses information from EthioSIS in order to implement necessary policies to rehabilitate soil desertified areas.
Non-government entities in Ethiopia also participate in the use of regenerative agriculture in the country. For example, in 2013, Nespresso launched a coffee sourcing program in Ethiopia to encourage coffee farmers to practice regenerative agriculture. Today, up to 37,000 farmers have benefited from Nespresso’s farming academy, which teaches sustainable and regenerative farming techniques that help farmers increase their crop yields and restore soil health to avoid desertification and respond to its impacts.
Government Involvement & Solutions
In 2016, the Food and Government Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in collaboration with the Ethiopian government launched its Action Against Desertification program. The program initiated the Great Green Wall project, which intends to rejuvenate Ethiopia’s forests and restore the soil health of its 22 million hectares of desertified land by 2030 through the planting of trees.
Learn more about how desertification is impacting people around the world: