Desertification: Causes & Potential Solutions

Desertification; land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.

It’s no secret that our beautiful planet is on its knees.

Forests are burning.

Oceans are acidifying.

Ice caps are melting.

We are currently experiencing a 6th major extinction event. As we hurtle towards this critical climate crossroads, the decisions we make collectively will determine not only the future of our species but the entire planet.

The continual destruction of wild habitats and ecosystems across the globe is worsening at an exponential rate. Desertification is without a doubt one of the most damaging forms of degradation, transforming once arable and fertile land into sandy wastelands that can no longer support vegetation or plant cultivation. As the population of Homo sapiens persistently expands and global temperatures continue to rise, larger areas of land are becoming vulnerable to desertification – according to UNESCO, over two-thirds of the planet’s total land surface is now susceptible.

While desertification is a serious issue across the entire globe, areas most at risk include overpopulated and poor regions (Asia and Africa). The endless need for more food and an overwhelming lack of education concerning these issues create a vicious cycle. Communities will leach land to its death, forcing them to migrate and repeat the process indefinitely. 

“In many countries, desertification means a decline in soil fertility, a reduction in vegetation cover – especially grass cover – and more invasive shrub species. Practically speaking, the consequences of this are less available land for grazing, and less productive soils. Ecosystems start to look different as more drought tolerant shrubs invade what used to be grasslands and more bare soil is exposed.”

Dr Katerina Michaelides

However, this is certainly not just an issue within developing countries. Shockingly, 40 percent of the continental US is now vulnerable to desertification with industrialised agriculture as the main culprit. And who could forget The City of Lost Wages? Pumping obscene amounts of fresh groundwater into sparkling cities filled with colossal hotels and water features – doesn’t really seem like a sustainable use of depleting water resources now does it?

Look, this is a huge concern – But I don’t want to be all doom and gloom and while I may sound like a griping pessimist, there are potential solutions out there. The only problem is we are running out of time – if we do not act now and come together to tackle these issues head-on, we risk watching our planet descend into an uninhabitable wasteland.

Oh great, back to being a pessimist!

Keep reading as I break down the unquestionable causes of desertification and assess the possible answers to its devastating effects.

Major Causes of Desertification

Desertification is an issue that is undeniably caused by human activity within arid, semi-arid, or sub-humid lands, also known as ‘drylands’. The major human-based activities that are driving this degradation include agriculture, mining, logging, and urbanisation – all of which involve vast areas of land being cleared of vegetation and trampled (in the case of farming and ranching).

This causes the removal of the lands essential topsoil (the section of soil that contains the vast majority of organic matter and microorganisms) in a process known a soil erosion. The importance of topsoil cannot be understated – we use topsoil to grow over 95% of the entire world’s crops, so it’s safe to say without it, we’d be in serious trouble.

Partnered with this detrimental human intervention is the impact of climate change, which drastically increases the probability of droughts occurring throughout these drylands. This deadly duo is too much for the fragile ecosystems and within a relatively short time span, once fertile, arable land is transformed into a dry, barren desert.

1. Agriculture

Agriculture is the leading cause of desertification by a large margin. The incessant requirement of food for our ever-growing population has destroyed vast areas of drylands due to overgrazing, ranching, and poor farming practices.

Farmers throughout the developing world have a serious lack of knowledge when it comes to sustainable farming. They will bleed the land dry in one area and use damaging fertilisers and pesticides, then simply move on to another, leaving it no chance of recovering.

Unsustainable freshwater use and management is also a major factor. Many countries in arid regions have little to no understanding of the water cycle and will churn through their freshwater reserves as if they are infinite – which they certainly are not.

2. Mining

The mining of precious ores and metals, fuelled by our obsession with material goods, also plays a large role in desertification.

Large mines require mass deforestation and pollution which significantly damages the surrounding ecosystem. Once the mine is decommissioned the land will never recover and most likely become desert.

3. Logging & Deforestation

Deforestation and desertification go hand-in-hand. Trees and their roots have a symbiotic relationship with soil, the removal of the former will drastically impact the latter.

Not only will the soil lose a vast amount of nutrients that it usually receives from decaying plant matter, but it will also be left exposed to the weather. The topsoil will dry out and be either blown away by wind or washed away by heavy rains.

4. Removal of large land mammal ‘mega-herds’

One of the major causes of this issue is seldom even considered or talked about (other than between experts). Before the urbanization of our planet, nomadic herds of large, hoofed mammals (such as buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, deer, etc) would roam grasslands in colossal numbers.

You may be wondering, how is this different from ranching?

The migratory behaviours of these herds were the key.

Once a large group of animals passes through an area, they eat all the old plant matter, defecating as they go. All of this poop, urine, and mulch are absorbed by the soil and trampled down, which greatly improves the soils’ ability to retain nutrients and water.  

With these mega-herds no longer traversing the vast grasslands and great plains the biological cycle has broken down – plant matter is no longer being broken down biologically and simply remains in place, preventing new growth and killing the soil.  

Potential Solutions to Desertification

Necessity is the mother of invention

Ester boserup

It goes without saying that major policy interventions and changes are required to combat this crisis. This readjustment is required worldwide, from large corporations down to local communities. It is also extremely important to focus on both – rehabilitation in already desertified areas alongside prevention in areas at risk.

One of the major recipes to maintaining rehabilitated areas is achieving an increase in vegetation. The roots of plants form sophisticated networks through soils, holding them together and reducing the impact of soil erosion. Furthermore, as plant matter dies and decays it replenishes the topsoil as fungi and other microbes recycle the material.

1. Sustainable Farming

For far too long the agriculture business has been industrialised – dominated by gigantic companies, growing the same crop each year, constantly spraying chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This has obliterated our planet’s soils, water, and atmosphere.

We can farm sustainably, many already do – and it is something we simply must accomplish on a global scale to feed our ever-growing population while preserving the planet.

Farms must be considered fragile and complex ecosystems and treated as such.

So, what would this involve?

  1. Maintaining healthy soils
  2. Supporting biodiversity
  3. Improved water management
  4. Reducing pollution 

Plant diversity is essential in preventing desertification. Planting numerous crop types in one area, alongside indigenous vegetation will support plant protection, healthier soils, and wildlife. In a sense, we must attempt to mimic nature to make the most productive systems possible – this is known as agroforestry (definitely worth checking out).

2. Holistic Management

Coined by Allan Savory, Holistic Management is a sustainable way of managing resources and restoring desertified land. The concept is similar to rotational grazing, but it focuses more on the relationship of the entire ecosystem with emphasis on the water, mineral, and carbon cycles alongside community dynamics and energy flow.

This permaculture approach utilises large grazing herds and their symbiotic relationship with the surrounding grasslands. Mimicking ancient wild herds with livestock in predator-friendly environments has shown to heal degraded soils, increase biodiversity, and even improve crop yield.

This has the potential to prevent and reverse desertification while supplying us with an ample amount of food.

Educating ranchers and farmers in developing countries on these techniques is one major way to tackle this issue. Just imagine the impact this could have if adopted on a global scale. Our deserts and degrading areas could become lush grasslands teeming with biodiversity with healthier soils that produce more nutritious crops!

3. Covering Deserts with Solar Panels

Desert biomes receive more sunshine and solar radiation than any other environment on Earth. They are also mostly flat, empty, and contain vast amounts of silicone (one of the main elements in solar cells). This makes them ideal candidates for solar-powered electricity generation.

Research suggests that covering the Sahara Desert with panels would be able to generate enough electricity to meet the world’s energy demand – four times over! However, an array of this size could have detrimental effects on the environment for numerous reasons. Luckily (not really), we have plenty of deserts across all the major continents, meaning we could evenly space out these systems and provide energy to neighbouring countries.

But wait, there’s more!

Solar panels absorb far more of the sun’s energy than the sandy floor and have the potential (if large enough) to trigger a feedback loop. As the photovoltaics dissipate the absorbed energy as heat, a stark temperature difference is created between the ground and surrounding atmosphere. This, in turn, lowers the surface air pressure causing moist air to rise, condense, and fall as rain.

This will facilitate increased plant growth and drastically transform the biosphere from a dry desert to a humid and lush green area.

4. Reforestation

As I have mentioned previously, an increased level of vegetation replenishes and holds soils together while drastically reducing soil erosion. Planting indigenous trees and other plant life in degrading areas can significantly slow and even reverse desertification.

One example of this already being used is the ‘Great Green Wall’ project in the Sahel region of Africa. Seven countries have all pledged to plant a 15km wide wall of trees along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert to halt its expansion.

Not only will this buffer zone help prevent further desertification, but it will also restore fertile and arable land across these drylands and effectively cut 250 million tons of carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere.

While certain countries, such as Ethiopia and Nigeria, are showing fantastic commitment and progress, others are considerably lacking behind. Sadly, many countries across central Africa are rife with terrorism and corruption and a lot of project development funding is ending up in the pockets of bent politicians.

This project is aiming to be completed, with nearly 10 billion trees planted, by 2030. With effective education of local communities and potentially tackling the widespread corruption, this is entirely possible and would set the standard for the rest of the globe. If some of the poorest and most volatile areas of central Africa can curb deforestation, there is no excuse for other areas that are at risk.

Final Remarks

Once the cascade of degradation has begun, it becomes extremely difficult and expensive to reverse. The prevention of desertification in already arid and semi-arid areas is much easier and cheaper, this can include reducing vegetation loss, overgrazing, soil erosion, and land & water mismanagement.

“Sustainable land management practices, which are based on the local socio-economic and ecological condition of an area, help to avoid desertification in the first place but also to reduce ongoing degradation processes.”

Dr Mariam Akhtar-Schuster

There’s no denying that as our scientific knowledge and technological advancements continue to improve, we will become much better equipped to tackle major concerns such as desertification.

However, when we look at the impact that stable and diverse ecosystems have on the environment of entire continents, it’s clear that nature is the answer to all of our problems.

The complex symbiotic relationships of everything within ecosystems (from fungi and microorganisms to the largest apex predators) have been an ever-changing and evolving system over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Quite a narcissistic view to think we can create something better!

The impact of a thriving biosphere simply cannot be understated. If we as a species manage to look past our differences and work together, we will certainly be able to reverse desertification. By dedicating vast areas of our planet (perhaps all the drylands we can terraform back to fertile systems) to nature and holistic management of livestock, we will not only prevent further desertification but drastically improve the entire planet’s atmosphere and environment.

This monumental task is not only necessary, but inevitable, and I for one am excited to witness our adaptation into a new and better world.

Either that or we all go down together on our irreversibly dry, barren, and burning space rock. We’ll just have to wait and see…


One response to “Desertification: Causes & Potential Solutions”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: