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Arid and desertified landscape.

Desertification affects 27.4 percent of China’s land, impacting about 400 million people.

Credit: Xuanyu Han

Desertification

Call to action:

Prevent desertification by implementing regenerative land management and restoration practices that rejuvenate water cycles, soil health, and community well-being.

Desertification is an advanced stage of land degradation. It happens when healthy dryland ecosystems, which cover 40 percent of the global land area and are home to two billion people, begin to malfunction. As plants die, so does the biology in the soil needed to maintain cycles of life, creating desert-like conditions that can become permanent. Desertification is primarily caused by human activity, including industrial agriculture, poor irrigation practices, deforestation, and overgrazing. Its consequences include soil erosion, dust storms, declining aquifers, loss of agriculture, and damaged ecosystems, often making the land unsuitable for human habitation or use. Compounded by rising temperatures and other effects of climate change, the pace of desertification has increased significantly and could displace 50 million people by 2030. Desertification can be prevented and mitigated with regenerative land-management practices, such as agroforestry, silvopasture, water harvesting, and by supporting Indigenous rights.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn about desertification and its causes. Desertification starts when soil does not receive enough precipitation or can no longer hold enough moisture to sustain plants. Other factors can contribute, such as wind and water erosion, loss of nutrients in the soil, and the spread of salts. Unchecked, the degradation can become irreversible. Although natural processes play a role, desertification is principally caused by human activity.

  • When forests are cut and cleared, both the soil and the local climate dry out. In Haiti, 60 percent of the original forest has been cut down, resulting in eroded land and desertification.
  • Excessive tillage, monocropping, fallow fields, and compaction dry out soils, causing the loss of soil carbon and triggering erosion. Here is a case study from Israel highlighting the loss of organic matter in the soil as a leading cause of desertification.
  • Chemicals kill soil biology, damaging water cycles and plant vigor. In India, chemicals used in the Green Revolution hastened desertification.
  • Denuding vegetation by overgrazing dries out the soil and makes it susceptible to wind and water erosion. Here is a case study from Cyprus that demonstrates how overgrazing by goats has caused severe land degradation.
  • Hotter temperatures over longer spells reduce soil moisture, essential to plant health. This IPCC report explains the issue in detail.
  • Excessive water withdrawals from aquifers can cause falling water tables, accelerating desertification. Poor water management on the surface can change hydrology patterns and cause soil erosion.
  • Urban encroachment, new development, agricultural expansion, and removing forests by clear-cutting or conversion to another use, such as grazing, all contribute to desertification.
  • Mining activities can degrade land, causing erosion, pollution, and damaged waterways. Here is a map and an explanation from the World Atlas of Desertification.
  • Invasive and non-native plant and animal species can disrupt the ecological health of drylands.
  • Plants are sensitive to soil, water, and air pollution, which can reduce their vigor and contribute to desertification.

Learn about the effects of desertification. Nearly 40 percent of the planet’s land is degraded. Every year, 24 billion tons of fertile soil are lost to erosion brought on by drought and desertification. In combination with the effects of climate change, desertification is increasing food insecurity. More than 60 percent of central Asia is vulnerable to desertification, as are significant parts of Africa. By 2030, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates two-thirds of Africa’s productive soil will be lost if desertification continues. It’s also happening in southern Europe, western North America, and many other places. Effects include:

Prevent desertification where you live. If you live in a dry place, there are activities you can implement, many based on Indigenous or traditional practices. Examples include:

  • Permaculture principles and practices are especially well adapted for dry areas. Here is a guide to starting a permaculture garden at home. Water-management structures can be scaled to fit your property. Here is an example from Portugal.
  • If you grow food, ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan’s Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land details many simple techniques to adapt to a changing climate where you live.
  • Dryland water harvesting expert Brad Lancaster offers many ways to significantly reduce your water use at home.
  • In Burkina Faso, the construction of stone bunds, known as diguettes, hold back rainwater and allow it to soak into the soil rather than run off.

Prevent desertification by supporting one or more regenerative solutions at regional levels. The scale and complexity of desertification make it a daunting challenge. Individuals can help by participating in one or more of the solutions found on these Nexus sites:

Group

Farmers, Ranchers, and other Landowners

Prevent desertification. Taking steps to prevent the spread of desertification on your land is more effective and less costly than attempting to restore damaged areas later, especially at larger scales. Many causes of desertification are linked to unsustainable land management (see list above) and can be corrected by adopting regenerative practices.

Implement restoration. Although restoration in areas that are undergoing desertification can be difficult and expensive, it has been shown to be effective and can have positive economic returns. Many restoration practices are the same ones that can help prevent desertification (see above).

  • In Niger, West Africa, a farmer-led movement is restoring highly degraded land using an effective, low-cost woodland management technique that grows indigenous trees and shrubs from stumps, roots, and seeds. Called farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), this agroforestry system had its origins in the severe famines that struck the region in the 1980s.
  • Bamboo is an important tool for restoring degraded ecosystems. Its root systems can stabilize damaged land, protecting it from wind and water erosion (see Bamboo Nexus).
  • In Burkina Faso, degraded land has been restored with thousands of small pits called zaï that are filled with manure and compost and crop seeds.
  • Here are additional examples from Ethiopia and Jordan.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey has tips for landowners who wish to do restoration in drylands.

Researchers

Fill research gaps to both prevent desertification and help communities adapt to drier conditions. Further research is needed on interlinkages between desertification, land degradation, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes.

  • According to the IPCC, data and knowledge about adaptation to the combined effects of climate change and desertification are insufficient. Potential limits to adaptation include losses of land productivity due to irreversible forms of desertification. Even when solutions are available, more research is needed on effective implementation.
  • Develop local-level early-warning systems of drought and desertification. The use of remote-sensing technologies can provide reliable and timely information for aiding in the implementation of strategies that can reduce the impacts of desertification.

Companies

Support regenerative land use in every facet of your company. Land degradation in general and desertification in particular is bad for business. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2050, only 10 percent of land globally could be healthy, intact, and resilient. The result will be major disruptions in everything from access to basic resources, to food and beverages and construction materials. Look for opportunities to invest in regenerative land use in diverse environments. Examples include:

Governance

Help achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) by 2030. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 15.3 (“Life on Land”) aims to achieve a land-degradation-neutral world by combating desertification and restoring degraded land. LDN is achieved when the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystems and food security are stable or increase over time. More than 115 countries have made quantitative commitments to restore one billion hectares, but much more is needed. Policies, regulations, incentives, and research provided by governmental bodies are critical to achieving this goal.

  • In Mexico, recurrent drought led to the formation of the National Program Against Drought (PROCASNE), which includes a proactive approach to integrated drought management at the level of basin councils.
  • Jordan and Saudi Arabia jointly manage a shared aquifer, one of the few transboundary aquifer agreements in the world, with the goal of reducing environmental and water stress and easing political tensions.
  • The Beijing-Tianjin Sandstorm Source Control Project in China includes land-restoration measures, such as reforestation, sustainable grassland management, water and soil conservation, and sand stabilization.
  • Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have joined together to combat drought and sand and dust storms by engaging government agencies, researchers, practitioners, and local communities to create plans that reduce drought risk as well as create monitoring and early-warning systems.
  • In West Africa, the Volta Flood and Drought Management project aims to build capacities in six countries to implement coordinated measures to improve flood and drought strategies at regional, national, and local levels.
  • In southern Spain, Commonland has mobilized farmers, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders to implement a large-scale dryland restoration effort to halt desertification and soil erosion and bring back prosperity using the 4 Returns Framework.
  • In Ghana, the Tilaa is working with a network of women farmers to adopt climate-friendly land-use practices to integrate beehives and cashew trees into croplands and defend their land against desertification.

Improve land equality. Key to fighting desertification and restoring degraded land is equitable governance and a recognition of legitimate land rights, including those of women and youth, Indigenous peoples, and local communities. The laws and traditions that govern land use and provide tenure security are vital to the success of any project, and they must be respected as a critical responsibility of any governing body.

  • In Cameroon, The Restoration Opportunity Assessment Methodology (ROAM) identified high-priority locations for sustainable charcoal production. Land-user rights were recognized by the government. Land restoration using bamboo and other native plants was promoted for environmental and economic benefits.
  • In Pakistan, the support of community-led committees enabled the implementation and monitoring of restoration projects.
  • In Senegal, a multistakeholder effort involving local authorities and civil society groups established ten local commissions to support land tenure regularization for women and youth.
  • In Mali, an Agricultural Land Law mandates that 15 percent of arable land must be allocated to women and youth organizations.
  • In Nicaragua, the nonprofit Trócaire and its local partners helped women overcome barriers around land purchase, leasing, and inheritance, developing their capacity to demand their land rights.

Increase investment in regenerative practices. Transitions to regenerative agricultural practices can be costly. The land can take time to recover and become productive, negatively affecting financial returns. Investments and assistance are required to support people struggling with the costs of these transitions. Examples:

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