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.
Sudan is currently one of the countries most affected by desertification, which will likely continue to worsen in future years.
Learn more: What is Desertification?
Table of Contents
Fast Facts about Desertification in Sudan
- Over 500,000 square kilometers in Sudan are directly affected by desertification (Khairalseed 2015).
- Around 1.78 million square kilometers of Sudan is considered arid or semi-arid, which makes up 72% of the country’s total land area (Khairalseed 2015).
- Over half the population of the country of Sudan live in areas affected by desertification (Khairalseed 2015).
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.
Because such a large area of Sudan is considered drylands, much of the country is at risk. In fact, researchers in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, have argued that desertification is the largest environmental threat that Sudan faces, as it has large impacts on human lives and sustainable development (Saad et al. 2018).
The map below shows the areas of Sudan most vulnerable to desertification. As seen on the map, the southern edge of Sudan is part of the Sahel region, an area that is known for experiencing high levels of desertification.
Read more about desertification in the Sahel: Desertification in Africa
Southern Sudan is most vulnerable to desertification
Source: Saad et al. 2018
Why Is Desertification Happening in Sudan?
Desertification is caused by multiple factors, including natural causes and human activities. There is no clear consensus on which is a larger contributor to desertification in Sudan.
The factors discussed below are some of the major drivers of desertification in Sudan, but do not represent a comprehensive list.
As climate change continues and temperatures rise, land becomes more arid and more vulnerable to desertification. The amount of precipitation (rain) that is occurring in deserts today is generally much lower than the amount of rain a half century ago (UNFCCC 2020).
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). As much of Sudan’s deserts are already susceptible to drought, climate change may cause more extreme drought in this area.
Drought has a major impact on desertification in Sudan. As a semi-arid country, drought is a typical part of the climate pattern, but in more recent years it has worsened and contributed to soil degradation and a loss of vegetation (Khairalseed 2015). A lack of rainfall has particularly affected western Sudanese territories such as Kordofan (Saad et al. 2018). These factors cause desertification through a loss of healthy soil, and make crop cultivation more difficult.
Temperature is also increasing in Sudan, which dries out soil, contributing to desertification, and makes it more difficult for some plants to grow. The chart below shows the overall upward trend of average annual temperatures in Khartoum. While there is natural variation, the general trend is upward, which matches the global increase in average temperature due to climate change.
Source: Saad et al. 2018
Ineffective Land Management & Resource Use
There are many agricultural practices that degrade land and contribute to desertification. First, removing protective layers of vegetation on top through tilling erodes land and degrades the soil, leaving infertile soil levels below to dry out in the sun (Winslow et al. 2004).
The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides also works to degrade soil, as they kill off helpful microorganisms in soil and remove crucial nutrients for plant growth (Joko et al. 2017).
Overgrazing livestock additionally erodes land by removing vegetation cover and makes it more difficult for new plants to grow. The intensity of grazing has increased rapidly since the 1950s (Khairalseed 2015). The chart below shows the rapid increase in the amount of grazing animals (specifically camels) in the Kordofan province between 1957 and 1966.
As more land is degraded, more land must be turned into farmland and used more intensively. This increased land-use intensity in turn worsens desertification, as intensive agriculture works to degrade land.
Additionally, overuse of natural resources such as using wood for fuel destroys natural vegetation cover, allowing for wind to pick up dirt and sand and create wind-driven (aeolian) desertification (Tao et al. 2014).
A lack of vegetation cover due to deforestation may also contribute to desertification. Less vegetation increases the land’s albedo (the land’s ability to reflect sunlight), causing radioactive cooling, which reduces rainfall and therefore reduces soil moisture (Charney 1975).
Population Growth and Urbanization
Higher urbanization and increased population growth leads to higher resource extraction and increased pressure on surrounding agricultural areas (Abdelbagi 1982). More resource extraction like logging, farming, and land clearing leads to faster desertification, as does land clearing.
A 2015 paper argues that human overpopulation is one of the major drivers of desertification in Sudan (Khairalseed 2015). For example, too many gum trees were cut down to provide firewood, and crop rotation patterns changed in order to provide more food to meet the needs of a larger population. Both of these factors contribute to desertification, as discussed above.
Impacts of Desertification
Desertification is already having severe impacts, and will continue to cause harm both to human economies and subsistence styles, and the environment.
Reduced Food Security
As agriculture becomes more difficult on increasingly degraded and desertified land, food scarcity increases. Many Sudanese people in rural areas rely on natural resources for subsistence including food, fuel, and land to graze livestock (Khairalseed 2015). As desertification increases, it is more difficult for these communities to grow enough food to support the population.
Desertification may cause increased risks of water and food-borne diseases. This is partially due to a lack of clean water (Mirzabaev et al. 2019).
Increased dust in the air can result in respiratory problems or heart disease (Zhu et al. 2022). This is already an issue in Sudan, as they have faced several dust storms as a result of desertification. Dust storms in Sudan have made the global news as early as 2005 and as recently as 2021, and have continued to hit the country.
Restricted Economic Development
Much of Sudan’s population is dependent on agriculture to make a living; around 80% of Sudan works in agriculture. As desertification increases, it becomes more difficult for farmers and ranchers to make a living growing food or supporting livestock. Additionally, drought threatens economic development directly, as 97% of water used in Sudan is used for agricultural purposes.
The dust storms discussed above not only cause health problems, but also cause economic shutdowns and power outages that impact people’s livelihoods. For example, a dust storm in 2021 caused cancellations of aircrafts and delayed ground transport.
For more information on the impacts of desertification, read “Desertification: Definitions, Causes, Impacts, and Solutions.”
Solutions to Desertification in Sudan
Many solutions have been developed and some have been implemented to try and address desertification in Sudan. This article discusses a few solutions, but a wide variety of community-based approaches are needed to address the problem of desertification.
Implementation of Regenerative Agricultural Practices
Regenerative agriculture is agricultural practices that restore the land, rather than depleting the land of vital resources.
Regenerative practices that restore soil health include agroforestry (planting trees among crops), low or no-till farming, planting cover crops, and using natural, chemical-free fertilizers and pesticides.
Many projects in Sudan aim to improve agricultural practices to reduce desertification. For example, one project aims to create eleven Village Councils Development Committees (VCDCs), local councils to focus on improving natural resource management in rural communities and improved water harvesting techniques (Saad et al. 2018).
Read more: What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Government Involvement & Solutions
Sudan’s government has been implementing plans to combat desertification for many years, to varying degrees of success. These government initiatives are referred to as Sudan’s National Action Programme (NAP), and are run through the National Council for Combating Desertification (NCCD).
One such project is the Western Savanna Development Project (WSDP), which has a long-term agricultural development plan begun in 1978. Its goals included adopting farming systems that did not degrade land, increasing farm production (and thus increasing small farmer incomes), and conserving water and rangeland.
They aimed to achieve these goals through many methods, including increased research, rotational grazing, rehabilitation of water sources, and restocking gum arabic trees.
These government-led projects are ongoing and are reviewed and revised fairly frequently.