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Desertification is a serious problem across significant areas of the African continent—widespread land degradation and soil erosion affect the livelihoods of local communities and wildlife.
There are two main drivers behind desertification: climate variations and human activities. Large parts of Africa experience a rather hot and dry climate, one which is becoming even more extreme and unpredictable due to climate change. Ever-growing populations are also increasing the demand for overgrazing, agriculture and deforestation, which degrade the land even further.
There is a notable geographic pattern of desertification in Africa, covering many areas of mostly savannah land that already borders existing deserts. The Sahel region—a semi-arid area that spans much of western Africa, and is stretched out along the southern side of the Sahara Desert, is one of these areas.
However, parts of eastern Africa, including Kenya, are also under threat of becoming a desert, as are the areas surrounding the Kalahari and Namibian Deserts. Away from the humid rainforests that span much of the Equator, Africa is a rather dry continent—65% of its land area is classed as being at least semi-arid. Apart from the deserts of Africa, the savannah areas also form a vast network of dryland environments, which are becoming increasingly susceptible due to climate change.
The large savannah areas experience a long dry season that is interspersed by a two- or three-month wet season. Changes in rainfall patterns, which are becoming increasingly common due to climate change, mean that wet seasons are shorter and produce less rain across many desert-bordering savannah drylands. This means that desert-bordering areas lose their vegetation, with grasslands and shrublands receding, resulting in fertile soil being blown away and the landscape becoming barren. Furthermore, climate change has been linked to increasing the intensity of rainfall during torrential downpours; however, the land is often too dry to absorb rainfall runoff, further degrading the land through soil erosion.
Human activities accelerate the issue of desertification in Africa even further. Overgrazing, negative agricultural practices and deforestation are three large contributors, all of which are encouraged by a growing population, much of which lives in extreme poverty and relies directly upon the land in order to survive. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that 58% of African desertification is due to cattle grazing, which removes large amounts of soil-binding grass (and other vegetation) from the ground. Agricultural activities, in particular planting and growing crops, contribute towards around one-fifth of desertification in Africa. Growing crops and tilling the soil means that topsoil is easily eroded by both the wind and the rain.
Deforestation also has a negative impact and severe consequences for desertification. Some savannah areas are occupied by pockets of woodland such as Acacia thickets. These are often cleared for firewood, and this deforestation leads to desertification. Planting trees is an important part of the solution to prevent further desertification in Africa, alongside the implementation of more environmentally-friendly agricultural methods.
Desertification, the process of land degradation in arid and semi-arid regions, has significant consequences for communities in Africa. The impacts are diverse and can profoundly affect people's lives and livelihoods. Here are key points to consider:
Loss of livelihoods and food Insecurity: Desertification can lead to reduced agricultural productivity, making it difficult for communities to grow crops and sustain livestock. This results in food shortages and malnutrition, particularly in areas heavily dependent on agriculture for subsistence . Loss of Livelihoods and Food Insecurity Desertification disrupts the delicate balance of ecosystems, resulting in the loss of fertile land and productive agricultural areas. As arable land transforms into desert or arid regions, communities relying on agriculture for sustenance face the risk of losing their livelihoods . Reduced access to cultivable land and diminished water resources severely impact crop yields, leading to food shortages and increased vulnerability to hunger and malnutrition. The loss of viable farming opportunities exacerbates poverty, widening socioeconomic disparities within affected regions.
Water scarcity and access to clean drinking water: As desertification progresses, water sources become scarce and unreliable. Communities face challenges in accessing clean water for drinking, sanitation, and irrigation. This scarcity can lead to increased competition for limited water resources and potential conflicts among communities . As desert regions expand, aquifers deplete, and surface water sources diminish, communities face severe water scarcity . Limited access to safe drinking water leads to a higher risk of waterborne diseases and contributes to the overall deterioration of public health. Women and children, primarily responsible for water collection in many African communities, bear the brunt of this burden, often traveling long distances in search of water, which further limits educational and economic opportunities.
Loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services: Desertification contributes to the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems in Africa . As once-vibrant ecosystems transform into barren landscapes, a wide range of plant and animal species face extinction, disrupting the delicate balance of nature. The decline in biodiversity affects the availability of natural resources, such as medicinal plants, and undermines essential ecosystem services like pollination and soil fertility. This loss of biodiversity further weakens the resilience of communities, leaving them more susceptible to the impacts of climate change and other environmental challenges.
Displacement and migration: The impact of desertification often forces people to leave their homes and migrate in search of more habitable areas. This movement can lead to population pressures on already vulnerable regions and result in social, economic, and political challenges . Also, The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification warns that desertification has already affected the lives of 250 million people globally, with an estimated 135 million individuals potentially displaced by 2045 due to this environmental challenge . As productive land becomes uninhabitable, communities are forced to abandon their homes and seek alternative livelihoods elsewhere. This mass displacement places additional strains on already vulnerable populations, leading to overcrowding in urban areas, increased competition for resources, and potential social conflicts.
Health issues: Desertification can contribute to health problems, such as respiratory illnesses due to increased dust and sandstorms, as well as waterborne diseases resulting from limited access to clean water and sanitation facilities . As desertification encroaches on previously undisturbed habitats, it forces wildlife into closer contact with human populations, creating opportunities for the transmission of diseases . The current COVID-19 pandemic serves as a stark reminder of how zoonotic diseases can spread rapidly and devastate communities worldwide. Addressing desertification and preserving intact ecosystems are crucial steps in mitigating the risk of future zoonotic disease outbreaks.
To address the impacts of desertification, it is crucial to implement sustainable land management practices, promote afforestation and reforestation efforts, improve water management strategies, and empower local communities with knowledge and resources to adapt and mitigate the effects of desertification. By taking these measures, we can work towards a more sustainable and resilient future for the affected regions in Africa. Join DGB Group in its mission to restore nature at scale.
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