Desertification: impacts and solutions
Desertification affects vital parts of our lives, such as food security and biodiversity. Let’s discuss the effects of desertification and the best way to address this growing issue.
What is desertification?
According to the United Nations, we lose 12 million hectares of fertile land each year to desertification. This statistic is alarming, considering how healthy soil directly influences our livelihoods.
Desertification is when fertile land turns into a desert or semi-arid area. This happens due to a combination of natural and human-induced factors, such as drought, deforestation, overgrazing, unsustainable agricultural practices, and changing environmental conditions. Desertification significantly impacts the environment, human health, and economic development, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions.
Read more: Top 10 causes of deforestation
This article discusses the solutions to this global issue and the best strategy to combat desertification using the nature-based approach.
Why is important to prevent desertification?
The importance of combating desertification cannot be overstated. It threatens sustainable development and the livelihoods of millions of people worldwide. Desertification can result in the loss of soil fertility, biodiversity, and water resources, leading to increased poverty, food insecurity, and conflict. Moreover, desertification releases carbon stored in soils and reduces ecosystems’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) due to the absence of plants and trees in large areas.
Main strategies and solutions for desertification
Several strategies can be implemented to combat desertification and restore degraded lands. The following are examples of the most effective solutions to prevent desertification and restore degraded land.
- Reforestation and afforestation: Planting trees and other vegetation helps prevent soil erosion, enhances soil fertility, and restores degraded ecosystems. This can be achieved through afforestation, which involves planting trees in areas where they were previously absent, or reforestation, which involves restoring degraded forest ecosystems.
- Sustainable land management (SLM): SLM involves adopting sustainable agricultural practices, such as conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and soil conservation, to improve soil health, increase crop yields, and reduce land degradation.
- Water harvesting and management: Water harvesting and management practices, like building small dams, ponds, and other water-storage systems, help increase water availability and reduce the impact of drought in arid and semi-arid regions.
- Conservation of biodiversity: Protecting and conserving biodiversity is essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems, improving soil fertility, and mitigating the impact of increased carbon emissions.
- Sustainable energy development: Developing sustainable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, can help reduce the use of fossil fuels. This eliminates the excessive need to cut down trees that result in more degraded land with erosion and desertification.
- Policy and institutional support: Governments, non-profit organisations, and other stakeholders can provide policy and institutional support to promote sustainable land-management practices, restore degraded lands, and support the livelihoods of communities living in affected areas.
Combating desertification requires a holistic approach that addresses the underlying causes of land degradation and promotes reforestation, sustainable land-management practices, water harvesting, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable energy development.
Read more: Reforestation: 10 amazing benefits of planting trees
At DGB Group, we believe in taking tangible and strategic steps to prevent desertification. We plant trees as part of reforestation and afforestation projects and offer a tree-planting subscription for anyone who wants to contribute to ecosystem restoration and conservation.
Water dam between mountains of Constanza, Dominican Republic.
Find out more: How you can plant trees for your business at scale
Main causes of desertification
There are two types of causes that result in desertification: naturally occurring and human-driven causes.
Natural causes of desertification
These are indeed natural factors that contribute to desertification. We cannot directly control these factors, but we can proactively address them by strategically planting more trees around agricultural or waterfront areas. The following are natural factors that contribute to desertification:
- Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can result in decreased rainfall and extremely hot weather, leading to soil degradation and desertification.
- Drought can lead to soil erosion and the loss of vegetation cover, making it difficult for plants and animals to survive in the affected area.
- Soil erosion by wind and water can result in the loss of topsoil, which is crucial for plant growth and can lead to soil degradation.
Human causes of desertification
Human activities are the primary drivers of desertification, with natural causes exacerbating the problem. Addressing the root causes of desertification will require reforestation and afforestation, sustainable land-use practices, such as agroforestry and sustainable grazing, and addressing the underlying economic, political, and social factors that drive unsustainable land-use practices. The following are activities that cause desertification:
- Overgrazing by livestock can result in the removal of vegetation cover, leading to soil erosion and desertification.
Cattle livestock grazing in a field.
- Deforestation, the removal of trees and other vegetation, can lead to soil erosion and desertification.
- Unsustainable agricultural practices, such as monoculture and the excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers, can degrade soil quality and contribute to desertification.
- Land-use change and the conversion of natural land cover, such as forests or grasslands, to other uses, such as urban development or mining, can lead to soil degradation and desertification.
- Population growth and urbanisation can increase the demand for food, water, and resources, leading to unsustainable land-use practices and desertification.
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Impact of desertification
Desertification caused by mostly human activities, such as deforestation and urbanisation, further causes environmental, social, and economic changes that lead to more issues in the future. Let’s review the effects of desertification as it relates to economic and environmental stability and the livelihoods of local communities.
- Loss of vegetation cover: Desertification can lead to the loss of vegetation cover, resulting in soil erosion and the degradation of soil quality.
- Soil degradation: Desertification can result in the degradation of soil quality, making it difficult for plants and animals to survive in the affected area.
- Reduced biodiversity: Desertification can lead to a reduction in biodiversity as species are unable to adapt to the changing conditions.
- Increased vulnerability to changes in weather patterns: Areas affected by desertification are more vulnerable to the impacts of weather pattern changes, such as increased drought and decreased rainfall.
- Loss of agricultural productivity: Desertification can lead to a loss of agricultural productivity, making it difficult for farmers to grow crops and raise livestock.
- Decreased water availability: Desertification can decrease water availability, making it difficult for communities to access clean water for drinking and irrigation.
- Loss of livelihoods: Desertification can result in the loss of livelihoods for communities that depend on natural resources for their survival, such as farmers and pastoralists.
- Increased poverty: Desertification can lead to increased poverty as communities struggle to adapt to changing environmental conditions and the loss of natural resources.
Economic value of biodiversity
- Displacement: Desertification can result in the displacement of communities as they are forced to leave their homes in search of food, water, and resources.
- Conflict: Competition for scarce resources can lead to conflict between communities, particularly in areas where resources are already scarce.
- Migration: Desertification can lead to migration as communities are forced to move in search of food, water, and resources.
- Health impacts: Desertification can lead to health impacts, such as malnutrition and disease, as communities struggle to access food and clean water.
Overall, desertification has significant environmental, economic, and social impacts, particularly in developing countries where communities depend heavily on natural resources for survival. Addressing the root causes of desertification and promoting sustainable land-use practices is essential for mitigating these impacts and building resilience in affected communities.
A group of women transporting drinking water to a village, Africa.
How to prevent desertification
A combination of preventative and remedial measures is needed to combat desertification effectively. Implementing sustainable land-management practices, reforestation and afforestation initiatives, and effective water conservation and management strategies can prevent land degradation and improve the resilience of nature and communities in affected areas.
Read more: Preventing desertification: Top 5 success stories
The restoration of degraded land and vegetation cover through soil and vegetation restoration techniques can also mitigate the effects of desertification and promote the sustainable use of natural resources. Being proactive and preventing desertification is an essential part of nature conservation and socioeconomic stability.
Preventative measures to address desertification
- Reforestation and afforestation: Planting trees can help to restore degraded land and improve soil quality. Afforestation, the establishment of forests in areas where there were no trees before, can help to mitigate the effects of desertification by reducing erosion and increasing soil fertility.
- Water conservation and management: Effective water conservation and management practices can reduce water scarcity and improve soil moisture, which is crucial for plant growth. Strategies such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, and drought-resistant crops can help conserve water and improve crop yields.
- Sustainable land management: Sustainable land-management practices, such as agroforestry, sustainable grazing, and conservation agriculture, can help to improve soil quality, reduce erosion, and increase biodiversity. These practices can also provide economic benefits to local communities by improving agricultural productivity and creating new income-generating opportunities.
Remedial measures to address desertification
Ecological restoration techniques
Ecological restoration techniques aim to restore natural ecosystems and biodiversity in degraded areas. Some examples of ecological restoration techniques include:
- Re-vegetation: Re-vegetation involves planting native species in degraded areas to restore vegetation cover and improve soil quality.
- Habitat restoration: Habitat restoration involves restoring natural habitats, such as wetlands and forests, to promote biodiversity and ecosystem services.
- Landscape restoration: Landscape restoration involves restoring entire ecosystems, such as watersheds or river basins, to promote ecological resilience and improve environmental conditions.
Yacare caiman in its river habitat. Ibera Wetlands, Corrientes, Argentina.
Read about our nature-restoration project in Uganda
Soil restoration techniques
Soil restoration techniques aim to improve soil fertility and quality in degraded areas. Some examples of soil restoration techniques include:
- Addition of organic matter: Organic matter, such as compost, manure, and crop residues, can be added to degraded soils to improve soil structure and fertility.
- Use of fertilisers: The application of fertilisers, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, can improve soil fertility and plant growth in degraded areas.
- Soil amendments: Soil amendments, such as lime and gypsum, can improve soil pH and reduce soil salinity in affected areas.
Policy solutions to combat desertification
Policy solutions at the international and national levels are important for promoting sustainable land-use practices and combating desertification. Effective policies and programmes can help address the underlying causes of desertification, such as unsustainable land-use practices and deforestation, and promote the sustainable use of natural resources. Below, we will review the main types of institutional solutions to deforestation.
- International agreements and conventions: International agreements and conventions, such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), provide a framework for global cooperation and action to combat desertification. The UNCCD promotes sustainable land-use practices, supports the restoration of degraded land, and improves people's livelihoods in affected areas.
- National policies and programmes: National policies and programmes can provide a framework for addressing desertification at the national level. Some examples of national policies and programmes aimed at combating desertification include:
- China's Three North Shelterbelt Programme combats desertification in the country's northern regions by planting trees to create a barrier against wind and sand erosion.
- The United States' Great Plains Conservation Programme funds resources to farmers and ranchers in the Great Plains region to implement conservation practices that help prevent soil erosion and protect against desertification.
- Nigeria's National Afforestation Programme combats desertification by promoting reforestation and afforestation activities, including planting trees in degraded areas and creating greenbelts around cities to prevent further encroachment of the desert.
- Australia's National Soil Strategy addresses soil degradation and erosion by promoting sustainable land-use practices, improving soil health, and reducing soil erosion.
- The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is a global agreement promoting international cooperation to combat desertification.
- Reforestation and afforestation: Reforestation and afforestation programmes can restore degraded land, reduce soil erosion, and increase biodiversity.
- Sustainable agricultural practices: Sustainable agricultural practices, such as conservation agriculture and agroforestry, can help improve soil quality, increase crop yields, and promote biodiversity.
- Land-use planning: Land-use planning can help promote sustainable land-use practices, reduce soil erosion, and prevent land degradation.
- Soil and water conservation: Soil and water conservation programmes can improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion, and increase water availability in affected areas.
- Sustainable livestock management: Sustainable livestock management practices, such as rotational grazing and drought-tolerant breeds, can reduce overgrazing and improve soil quality.
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What are innovative farming techniques?
Desertification often occurs due to the overuse of land and water resources and poor farming practices that deplete soil nutrients. Innovative farming techniques can help combat desertification by improving soil quality and conserving water resources. Some examples of these techniques include:
- Conservation agriculture: This farming system minimises soil disturbance, maintains soil cover, and rotates crops to promote soil health and reduce erosion. This technique improves soil structure and water retention, which helps plants grow better and reduces water runoff.
- Agroforestry: This land use management system integrates trees, shrubs, and crops on the same plot of land. Agroforestry systems can improve soil fertility, reduce erosion, and conserve water resources by providing shade and reducing water loss through evapotranspiration.
- Regenerative agriculture: This is a holistic approach to farming that seeks to improve the health and fertility of the soil, increase biodiversity, and promote sustainable and resilient ecosystems. It involves working with natural systems and processes to build soil health, sequester carbon, and enhance the productivity and profitability of farms.
- Drip irrigation: This water-saving technique involves delivering water directly to the plant roots through a network of pipes and emitters. Drip irrigation reduces water loss through evaporation and runoff and can help farmers grow crops in areas with limited water resources.
Tomato plants inside a greenhouse with a drip irrigation system.
Read more: Carbon farming: How is it good for the environment, farmers and biodiversity?
What are green technologies?
Green technologies refer to sustainable technologies that reduce the impact of human activities on the environment. Some green technologies that help combat desertification include:
- Solar-powered water pumps: These pumps use solar energy to pump water from underground wells, rivers, or other sources, which is especially helpful in areas with limited access to electricity. This technology helps farmers grow crops and trees in arid regions, reducing the risk of desertification.
- Wind turbines: Wind turbines generate electricity in areas with strong winds, which can power water pumps, irrigation systems, and other farming equipment. This can reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and minimise the carbon footprint of farming activities.
- Biodegradable mulch: Mulch is a layer of material placed on top of the soil to conserve water and control weeds. Biodegradable mulch is made from organic materials that break down naturally over time, reducing the amount of waste produced by farming activities.
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What are the community-based solutions to combat desertification?
Empowering local communities
One of the most effective ways to combat desertification is to empower local communities to take ownership of the issue and drive the solutions. Local communities are often the most affected by desertification and have the greatest stake in reversing the trend. Some ways to empower local communities include:
- Encouraging community participation: Communities should be encouraged to participate in decision-making processes that affect their land and water resources. This can be done through community meetings, workshops, and other forums where community members can voice their concerns and opinions. For example, as part of our energy-efficient cookstove and reforestation projects in Kenya, Cameroon, and Uganda, we regularly hold training sessions with locals. They can use the knowledge in their households or farm or join our team in nurseries to provide for their families.
- Providing education and training: Communities should be provided with education and training on sustainable land-management practices, water conservation techniques, and other skills that help them combat desertification. This can be done through community-led training programs, peer-to-peer learning, and partnerships with local non-profit organisations and government agencies.
Promoting sustainable livelihoods
Promoting sustainable livelihoods helps communities reduce their reliance on unsustainable land-use practices contributing to desertification. This can be achieved through:
- Alternative income-generating activities: Communities should be encouraged to diversify their income sources beyond agriculture and livestock rearing, which are vulnerable to drought and other climate-related risks. This can include promoting small-scale businesses, eco-tourism, and other non-farming livelihood options.
- Sustainable land-use practices: Communities should be encouraged to adopt sustainable land-use practices, such as conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and sustainable grazing, which can improve soil fertility, conserve water, and reduce erosion.
- Community-based natural resource management: Communities should be encouraged to sustainably and equitably manage their natural resources, such as forests, water resources, and wildlife. This can include setting up community-managed reserves, sustainable harvesting practices, and community patrols to prevent illegal logging and poaching.
Agriculture Atlas Valley landscape, Morocco.
Combating desertification: a global responsibility
In conclusion, desertification is a pressing global issue that affects not only the regions directly impacted but also the wider world through its negative impacts on food security, economic stability, and biodiversity. We must recognise our collective responsibility to combat desertification and work together to implement sustainable solutions at local, national, and global levels.
By promoting sustainable land-use practices, supporting reforestation and afforestation efforts, and developing policies and programmes to address desertification, we can ensure a more secure and prosperous future for all. So let us take action today to protect our planet for generations to come.
Combat desertification with DGB
With DGB, you or your organisation can contribute to remedying or, better yet, preventing desertification through reforestation projects. We have large-scale global reforestation and social projects that restore nature and plant millions of trees. We provide opportunities for businesses and individuals to plant trees for community and biodiversity benefits. You can start with a single tree or plant hundreds for your business.
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