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.
While desertification does not significantly threaten Japan’s land directly, the country is indirectly affected by desertification in a number of ways.
Learn more: What is Desertification?
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Fast Facts about Desertification in Japan
- Around 30% of agricultural land in Japan is degraded (UNCCD 2017).
- Japan has contributed over 11 billion euros (over 12 billion USD) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD report).
Where Is Desertification Happening?
Desertification occurs in drylands, areas that get less rain (precipitation) than is evaporated or consumed by plants through part or the entire year. Drylands have very limited water and soil moisture.
While Japan does not have drylands, drylands cover 40% of Earth’s land surface and around 1 billion people live in these environments (Veron et al. 2006). Despite the lack of drylands, some of Japan’s land is still degraded, although it’s not significantly affected by desertification.
As desertification worsens, dryland agricultural areas around the world become unable to grow food. Desertification also causes (and is worsened by) soil loss. After desertification occurs, dry soil is often picked up and transported by wind, which not only reduces the amount of soil available for farming, but also creates unhealthy dust storms (Zhu et al. 2022).
How Is Desertification Affecting Japan?
Many areas around the world are feeling the direct effects of desertification, such as farmland drying up or forced migrations due to infertile land. While some areas of Japan’s land are degraded, Japan is impacted by desertification mostly in indirect ways.
Despite these effects of desertification being indirect, many people in Japan are already negatively affected, or are likely to feel the effects in the future.
Dust from China and Mongolia
As desertification worsens in China and Mongolia, dust storms become more frequent. Dust is picked up on the wind and transported far distances. Dust from China has been found as far away as the French Alps and the Rocky Mountains of North America (Grousset et al. 2003).
Read more: Desertification in China
Dust from the Takla Makan desert in northwest China and from the Gobi desert in China and Mongolia is transported to Japan on westerly winds. The frequency of these dust storms, often referred to as “yellow sand,” increased in the 1990s and 2000s, as overgrazing, soil degradation and desertification worsened in China (UNEP 2016).
Western Japan has been one of the most impacted areas, and flights have been delayed at Fukuoka airport due to sandstorms.
Inhaling this dust may also cause health issues such as respiratory problems or heart disease (Zhu et al. 2022).
Dust Storm Solutions
There are a few ways Japan is combatting the dust storms, including research and the creation of an early warning system for dust storms.
One of the main ways Japan is working against dust storms is performing research on China’s desertification and methods to reduce its impact.
Japan, China, South Korea and Mongolia have been collecting information on the yellow sandstorms since 2003, and have come up with several solutions. These include educational programs on proper farming techniques, water-management methods, and reforestation.
Japanese researchers have undertaken many research projects on this topic. One of the most prominent is Tottori University’s Arid Land Research Center (ALRC). Their multiple research groups, known collectively as “Project Asian Dust,” focus on how dust is emitted, how vegetation and desertification impacts this, how dust impacts human health, and how sandstorms can be controlled (Shinoda et al.).
Early Warning System
The Japan Meteorological Agency provides up-to-date predictions and analysis for the amount of dust in the air, referred to as aeolian dust. These predictions help Japanese citizens avoid being outside and may also help flights prepare for the dust storms.
For example, the image below shows the tool in use, predicting a dust cloud reaching Japan on March 16, 2021. Areas expected to experience dust are shown in color, ranging from red for high dust to yellow for low.
Dependence On Imported Wheat And Soybeans
Many Japanese people depend on imported wheat and soybeans as a part of their regular diet. Some Japanese researchers are concerned that this dependency will harm Japan as these crops become less available due to desertification affecting the countries in which they’re grown.
Wheat is typically grown in arid areas. As climate change increases average temperatures (which also causes land degradation and desertification), wheat is one of the crops that is impacted the most.
Not only does Japan depend on imported wheat, but wheat is a major source of calories in global diets (FAO 2011). Wheat also makes up a large portion of the agricultural economy, with the largest growth markets for wheat located in dry countries like Nigeria, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia (USDA 2022).
Solutions to Japan’s Wheat Dependency
Increased Food Self-Sufficiency
Food self-sufficiency is the ability of a country’s own food systems to produce enough food within that country to feed everyone, rather than importing food products from elsewhere. Increased food self-sufficiency would allow Japan to depend less heavily on other countries whose agriculture is more vulnerable to desertification or other disturbances.
While the self-sufficiency rate was close to 80% in the 1960s, meaning 80% of the food consumed in Japan was produced in the country, that percentage has fallen steadily, reaching a low of 37% in 2020. The Japanese government has set a goal for the country’s food self-sufficiency rate of 45% by 2030.
Climate Change Resistant Wheat
Japanese university Tottori University’s Arid Land Research Center (ALRC) is working on research to develop a heat-resistant, and therefore more climate change resistant, wheat (ALRC 2021). This wheat would survive better in high temperatures and drought, and thus is a better option for growing in areas threatened by desertification.
This more resilient wheat would reduce food scarcity as a result of climate change and desertification, and help assuage fears of wheat shortages in Japan. This project provides a helpful example of efforts to adapt to climate change and desertification that will likely become more necessary in coming years.
Japan’s Efforts to Combat Desertification
In addition to the solutions mentioned above, Japan has taken several other measures that aim to slow desertification and its effects, both globally and within Japan.
Research on Desertification in West Africa
Japan’s Ministry of the Environment carried out research focused on desertification in West Africa from 2004 to 2012 (Japan Ministry of the Environment 2013). Their research seeks to understand why desertification is occurring, and how solutions can be implemented to slow desertification while still protecting people’s livelihoods.
They provide locally-based solutions to desertification, including increased monitoring systems and traditional agricultural practices such as zai, holes dug around crops to improve water retention. They also provided local African communities with a variety of technologies to combat desertification and its impacts, such as textile production technology and soap production technology (both aimed at providing steady income during dry seasons).
Financial Commitments to Combating Desertification
As a member country of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), Japan’s government is committed to supporting other countries, particularly developing ones, in their fights against desertification.
In addition to providing research and technologies, as well as supporting NGOs, Japan has financially contributed to the cause. As of 2020, Japan had contributed over 11 billion euros to the UNCCD (UNCCD report).
Additionally, at COP26, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida promised $10 billion to go towards combating climate change. While this goes towards fighting climate change as a whole, not just desertification, this will certainly help to reduce climate-caused desertification.