What is desertification and how does it happen?
Desertification is the process of ecologically rich environments turning into dry lands. It is generally caused when humans are taking more resources from an environment than the area has to provide or can replenish.
What causes Desertification?
Overgrazing: If there are too many animals trying to graze in an area it becomes difficult for plants to grow back quickly enough. This is a particular problem in areas that are already vulnerable to desertification.
Deforestation: This is the process of clearing areas of forest land for timber production, agriculture, or development. Trees provide vital soil stabilisation and protection for smaller plants, without them desertification happens much more easily. Find out more about the other problems with deforestation, and how we can combat it in our blog post.
Climate Change: As periods of drought become more frequent it has a knock on effect on desertification. Unless we can slow climate change vast areas of land will likely become desert.
Urbanisation: When we develop areas of land vast areas of plant life are wiped out which rarely grow back significantly. Harmful chemicals can also leech into the ground, damaging soil quality.
Natural Disasters: There are some factors we have no control over. This could be a drought or flood damaging an area of land beyond natural recovery, therefore resulting in desertification. In these cases all we can do is try to rehabilitate the land after the event.
Over-Irrigation: Most of the previous factors are somewhat self explanatory, but how can putting too much water into the soil result in a desert? When we use groundwater to irrigate crops, the natural salts build up in the soil, over time the salt build-up makes it impossible for most plants to grow, the land becomes unusable and the desert takes over. A prime example of this is the Gobi desert in China. Each year the desert increases by 3,600 km2 due to desertification. However, in 1978, the Chinese government started the Great Green Wall project. This aimed to plant millions of trees along the 2800 mile border of northern China’s desert. The end date of the project isn’t until 2050 but so far more than 66 billion trees have been planted. Find out more about projects to halt desertification in the Gobi desert here.
Why is this a problem?
In desert areas farming becomes almost impossible because of lack of nutrients in the soil. This can lead to famine and poverty due to food scarcity. In turn, people that are able to will move to more nutrient rich areas. As desertification continues and desert areas increase, this can lead to overpopulation, putting pressure on resources, and starting the cycle of desertification again.
When there is rainfall desert areas can also be prone to flooding due to lack of plant life and poor soil quality. A major consequence of this us contamination to the drinking water supply.
Finally desertification is a form of habitat loss. This means that while it once may have provided food and shelter to many different species, those animals would be forced to find a new habitat or die out.
What can we do?
Although the main solutions to desertification are in changing legislation towards land usage and rehabilitating already desertificated areas there are several ways you can help:
Deforestation is one of the main precursors to desertification, so preventing it is a major step in the right direction. You can help by making sure your wood and paper products are FSC or PEFC certified and therefore responsibly sourced.
The World Wildlife Fund are part of an effort to prevent desert expansion. You can find out more about what they’re doing, as well as donate here.
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