What is desertification?
Desertification is a form of land degradation where productive and fertile land becomes arid; incapable of supporting biodiversity. This can occur through natural land “evolution” or human activity increasingly impacting the climate and natural habitats. Farming cattle can often cause deforestation and overgrazing, 2 prominent contributors to desertification. Other practices/operations like large pesticide and herbicide applications, urbanisation, natural disasters, tillage and excessive use of groundwater are all leading causes of desertification globally. According to the IPCC, desertification is most common in drylands, a biome that makes up 46.2% of the earth’s land area and is home to around 3 billion people.
The social & economic cost:
The IPCC states, “[between 1996 and 2016], yield decreases of up to 40–60% in dryland areas were caused by severe and extensive droughts.” This extensive loss in food production has enormous economic implications. “Over-extraction is leading to groundwater depletion in many dryland areas” as well. The UN Executive security to combat desertification estimates close to 135 million people over the next few decades will be at risk of permanently being displaced by land degradation and desertification. The impacts are also felt among animals like cattle: “Increase in temperature can have a direct impact on animals in the form of increased physiological stress” with “a decrease in the production of milk, meat and eggs, [and] increased stress during conception and reproduction.”
In 2019, a top United Nations environment official estimated land degradation/desertification costs the global economy 15 trillion dollars annually. Based on the CPI (Climate Policy Initiative) estimates, that’s more than 3 times the annual funding required until 2030 to keep the planet below 1.5 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit).
The environmental depletion:
The loss of productive drylands will cause massive environmental issues. “In an exceptionally rainy year (2011) in the southern hemisphere, the semi-arid ecosystems of this region contributed 51% of the global net carbon sink”, states the IPCC. This alone demonstrates the undeniable importance of carbon-sequestering drylands.
As deserts begin conquering vast amounts of land, vegetation cover dwindles and soil microbial and fungal life disappears. The loss of vegetation allows erosive winds to sweep through, making it remarkably easier for dust storms and other environmental hazards to occur.
The Gobi desert is the fastest-growing desert on the planet. It devours around 600,000 hectares of grassland per year with soil scientists estimating 1.5 million hectares of land lost to desertification annually, as well as 9 million hectares of surface water mainly (70%) within the Middle East and Central Asia.
Why is desertification occurring?
The WHO says practices like over-grazing, over-cultivating, forest conversion, urbanisation, deforestation and extreme weather events are the main causes of desertification/land degradation globally during the 20th and 21st centuries. The byproduct of this ecological destruction is further exacerbating the effects of climate change and global warming; two major factors set to cause issues beyond desertification. It’s estimated by the end of the century, 25% of the planet’s soil will be affected. According to the World Atlas of Desertification (WAD), 75% of the earth’s land area is already degraded with up to 90% possibly degraded by 2050. Already 45% of the land in Africa is affected by desertification with increasing deforestation set to only exacerbate the situation. With “60 per cent of Africans depend[ing] on their land and their forests,” the loss of huge amounts of land in Africa could cause unprecedented economic, social and environmental harm.
Practices such as intensive farming for mass food production may well end up being one of the very reasons food production in the future comes to a grinding halt. As Barron Joseph Orr puts it, “if we don’t have a solid base upon which people’s livelihoods can depend on that land, everything else becomes precarious.”
Painting the desertification picture:
The Gobi desert, located in Mongolia and northern China is one of the largest deserts on earth, covering 1.3 million square kilometres. Nearly the size of all of Mongolia. It so happens to also be the fastest-expanding desert, spreading through numerous towns and villages every year. In 2017, a large dust storm from the Gobi desert consumed 2.6 million square kilometres of China. This storm – along with extensive pollution – placed the air quality index in Beijing at 621. For context, any ranking between 301 and 500 is considered “hazardous”.
According to Forbes, “Between 2003 and 2008, 650,000 people living in China’s Inner Mongolia province were forcibly resettled” with “[China losing] 6.2% of its farmland between 1997 and 2008.” The Gobi desert is expected to be creeping closer to the Chinese capital at a rate of 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) every year.
Due to growing concern around desertification, the “Three-North Shelter Forest Program” has been introduced to try and halt the expansion of desertification throughout China. The program began in 1978 and is expected to end in 2050, planting 88 billion trees along the edge of the Gobi desert. Whilst this program has been highlighted as a “success” and “amazing”, many still aren’t convinced. The initiative introduced non-native and thirsty trees, reducing groundwater supply, with a study on the program finding only 15% of trees planted in 1978 survived.
Unless drastic economic and social behaviours throughout China are altered, desertification from the Gobi will only escalate. The nature scientific reports found, “socioeconomic factors were the dominant factor that affected desertification, accounting for 79.3% of the effects.”
How can desertification be reverted?
According to the UN, as of 2021, 100 countries globally have agreed to restore over 1 billion hectares of land over the next decade; a landmass comparable to China. This along with other agreements and practices will help slow down the encroachment of desertification across numerous countries/regions. Along with tree planting, ensuring global soil quality remains high will reduce groundwater loss and allow flora to thrive. Transitioning from modern industrial farming and overgrazing issues to practices like permaculture, no-tillage farming, cover cropping, precision farming and less pesticide use will reduce weed growth, retain groundwater, increase soil aeration and maintain nutrients.
Besides basic farming changes, technological applications like implementing solar in the Sahara could also have beneficial impacts.
Scientists have developed a climate plan (not yet implemented) to cover 1/5 of the Sahara desert in solar panels and wind farms bringing an estimated 5 centimetres more rainfall annually. Increasing the surface cover with dark solar panels would heat the air and push the hotter, moist air up towards the atmosphere. In the atmosphere, the moist air would cool and condense, generating rainfall. This additional 5 centimetres of rainfall annually would be enough to increase vegetation by an estimated 20%.
Desertification is one of the most frightening (mainly) human-caused complications as a result of the exploitation of resources like wood and water around the world. Not only will desertification increase environmental refugees and impair ecosystems, but create trillion-dollar debts in the global economy. As the planet changes, we will continue to witness ecological collapse, mass famine and economic depletion in the future. All of which can be stopped but it starts with us – reexamining our priorities.