What is desertification?
Desertification is when relatively dry areas of land turn into deserts. This happens mainly through the rising of temperatures which causes all present water basins in an area to dry up. Also, rain showers cease to take place in these areas because temperatures are so high that any moisture will evaporate before rain can replace it.
The lack of moisture turns the soil completely arid, which means that wildlife cannot survive on it and the soil cannot be used for agriculture. The high temperatures and the lack of water also make desertificated areas unsuitable for mankind to settle on.
Causes of desertification
The causes of desertification are climate change and agriculture. Climate change, mainly caused by mankind’s continuous pollution, will shift the climate’s balance in such a way that warm, dry areas will become warmer and dryer and cold areas will become much colder.
In general it is said that deserts appear between the 15th and 35th Equatorial degree, but due to climate change this area will increase. When that happens it is called desertification. The drier areas in the world that are prone to desertification are drylands, and currently consist of over 30% of the Earth’s land area.
In these drylands the majority of the population is dependent on agriculture. Unfortunately, their use of the soil in the lands leads to overexploitation, with large herds of cattle overgrazing the vegetation. The loss of vegetation is a direct cause of desertification, and besides overgrazing the burning down of forests (to create soil for agriculture, or to use the wood as fuel or building material) causes this too.
The reason that overgrazing and deforestation causes desertification is because the lack of vegetation leaves the most fertile top layer of the soil uncovered. It is then prone to wash away with floods or blow away with winds. The lower, less fertile layers of soil remain and turn into a hardened, rock-like substance, unsuitable for any type of vegetation to grow on.
How does desertification influence agriculture?
We have now seen how agriculture can influence desertification, with overgrazing and deforestation causing the soil to go infertile. It is clear that desertification and agriculture influence each other in a vicious circle. The lack of suitable agricultural soil leads to people deforesting areas to create more acres to work on or letting their cattle overgraze the limited areas that have vegetation. This, in turn, actually catapults desertification, with the deforested areas quickly deteriorating in unusable land and the last vegetated areas turning into so-called “dead soil”.
The largest problem with the people that are responsible for desertification in drylands is that 90% of them live in extreme poverty, have no access to education and are subject to low social conditions. They are unable to halt the desertification, because they have no other choice but to use up the minimal fertile soil that is left to feed the ever increasing population in their country, nor the knowledge to foresee the consequences of their doing. The aforementioned conditions also make the areas in which these people live unattractive for investing parties, so the population get no external help to increase their living conditions and to break the vicious circle of the way they handle agriculture and desertification.
Consequences of desertification
First and foremost, desertification threatens the lives of the drylands’ population, currently about one billion people in over 100 countries. These people will fall victim to desertification, because there the amount fertile soil will decrease and will fail to feed them and their cattle. Since agriculture is their only source of food, large famines will start to take place. Desertification will also lead to large areas to become uninhabitable, with the population forced to move away to other places, countries or continents, if they are able to.
Of course, desertification also leads to the area to lack water, which also means drinking water. The population in the drylands can also fall victim to the loss of suitable drinking water, and this will threaten their population. In the affected areas strong winds and wildfires will increase in intensity and occurrence.
The rest of the world’s population may also feel the downsides of desertification. Since the world’s population is still growing, and economies such as those of China and India provide their inhabitants with more money to buy food, the world’s food production will be unable to keep up if desertification continues to grow. Furthermore, the scarcity of food will lead to international conflicts, social disorder and political instability.
Is desertification growing?
As you may have concluded from the previous paragraphs, it seems like desertification is an increasingly large problem. It has been estimated that at least until the year of 2050 desertification will increase, at a faster or slower pace. Another study shows that by 2050, 50% of current agricultural land in Latin America will be subject to desertification.
Desertification will cause many people to migrate to other countries or continents, studies show that by 2050 a number of 50 million up to 700 million people will have taken the high road out of the afflicted areas.
Until now it is estimated that about 25% of the Earth’s land area has been desertificated by human intervention. This amounts to 3.6 billion hectares. It is expected that in the coming centennial this amount will increase with around 15 million hectares per year.
How can desertification be halted or prevented?
Of course, there are ways to prevent a further increase of deforestation, but they require a global initiative and conscience about the austerity of consequences.
First of all, it is necessary to educate the populations in drylands, who are partially responsible for desertification. This method is likely to succeed, since education will convince these people that preservation of their agricultural lands is essential for their survival, and that deforestation and overgrazing will only enlarge the lack of usable lands.
Then, it is necessary to initiate a global prohibition on buying, selling, processing and cutting wood from large parts of forests in drylands and tropical areas, where desertification will occur as a result from the deforestation.
Another essential, but highly complex feat, to stop desertification is the halting of human-infused climate change. Humankind needs to stop their polluting activities and burning of fossil fuels. Renewable energy needs to become the global standard and fast. Global agriculture needs to become much more sustainable. Finally, the extremely polluting meat industry needs to decrease immensely to tone down the impact on the Earth.
It is highly unlikely that any substantial progress will be made in these areas the upcoming decades. The world is still much too dependent on fossil fuels, and the steps to improve conditions are much too small to make an impact.
Finally, it may be possible to reverse desertification by replanting drought-proof trees and bushes and refertilizing the soil with sustainable fertilizers and soil. Also, it is essential that in the building up phase, no grazing will take place in the areas.