The Desertification and Degradation of Land - Ishita Singh

The Desertification and Degradation of Land - Ishita Singh

“To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”-Theodore Roosevelt 

The land is an indispensable resource and asset for mankind, for years it has remained so. It has sustained and developed civilizations and ecosystems that persevere even today. Large numbers of communities, particularly in the rural areas and agrarian societies, are heavily dependent on the land for their livelihood and well-being. However, the rapid pace of climate change has massively affected the quality, cover, and fertility of soil on a global scale. The twenty-first century has witnessed the manifestation and repercussions of the continued exploitation of the environment in the form of rapid desertification and degradation of land. The ‘Food and Agriculture Organization’ (FAO) defines land degradation as the “temporary or permanent lowering of the productive capacity of the land”. The desertification of land, on the other hand, is characterized as a form of land degradation which has been defined by the ‘United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’ (UNCCD) as “land degradation in dryland areas due to various factors, including climatic variation and/or human activity”. At present, one- quarter of the total land area, one-sixth of the world’s population and seventy percent of drylands are being affected by the process of desertification.

The process of desertification and degradation is not a recent development. It has been occurring throughout history and persists even today. The cause of distress and apprehension, however, is the rate at which this has been taking place in recent decades. Various causes for the same have been identified internationally across the spectrum of deforestation, water shortage and climate aridization to urbanization, mining, and ranching. The acute effects of desertification can be recorded in and around more than a hundred countries having global implications. The demand for food has exponentially risen with a rapid increase in population growth. The amplifying deficiency in the productivity levels of land globally is hitting hard on the availability and accessibility of food in several countries. The Malthusian theory also enunciated the effects of the geometric population growth and the arithmetic food supply, wherein the exponential rise in population would eventually lead to an impending global food crisis. Furthermore, climate change has also been contributing heavily towards degrading land productivity, which has, in turn, increased the vulnerability of humans, particularly, in the dryland areas. These drylands, which have been affected by desertification, tend to lose their capacity and capability to sustain flora and fauna along with their ability to offer productive ecosystems and sustainable water systems. At present, around forty percent of the world’s land surface is covered by drylands and is home to more than two billion people. According to research, there has been a thirty to thirty- five percent increment in the rate of desertification with at least one-quarter of the global land degrading in the last two decades. 

The desertification and degradation of land have impinged on the development and security of numerous countries around the world. The ramifications of this detrimental development have been acknowledged and identified by the local and international community to bring about appropriate counter-actions. The United Nations has recognized the significance of land management and has incorporated it as Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 of the 2030 Agenda. The Goal aims to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt the reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”. It also focuses on establishing a link between economic development and sustainable management of resources alongside promoting and strengthening cooperation to mitigate desertification, dust storms, and droughts. 

According to the ‘European Commission’s World Atlas on Desertification’ (2018), seventy-five percent of the global land area has already faced degradation and estimates show that this would increase to around ninety percent by 2050. The Atlas also states that land degradation and climate change could lead to a decrease of ten percent in the global crop yield by 2050, particularly, in China, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa and the scarcity of land resources could result in the displacement of 700 million people. Furthermore, the UNCCD was established in 1994 to systematically monitor and assess land management practices internationally, particularly in the arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas. The UNCCD 2018-2030 Strategic Framework was reinforced in the thirteenth Conference of Parties (COP 13) held in Ordos, China in 2018 which articulated the global commitment towards the achievement of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN). The UNCCD referred to LDN as “a state whereby the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems.”

India hosted the fourteenth Conference of Parties (COP) in New Delhi in September 2019 primarily focusing on the integration of SDG 15 and the implementation of the framework to address desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) as a source for migration. The discussions centered on the various methods to reverse land degradation and achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN). At present, with 2.5 percent of global landmass, India constitutes 18 percent of the total population and fifteen percent of livestock, which has, in turn, resulted in the presence and prevalence of a quarter of the global hunger burden in the country. According to statistics, India, therefore, houses 195 million undernourished people. The publication of the ‘Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India’ by the Indian Space Research Organization’s Space Application Centre (SAC) in 2018 revealed that around 96.40 million hectares or thirty percent of India’s total land are undergoing degradation. The Atlas further stated that a quarter of India’s landmass is undergoing desertification. 

However, even though numerous initiatives have been adopted by the international community, the implementation of remedial techniques has been inadequate on a global scale. The developing countries are hit the hardest by the increasing degradation and desertification of land. Given the serious repercussions and longstanding consequences of the persisting process of land degradation and desertification, the international, regional and local communities have cooperated and responded with viable solutions to the impending crisis. First and foremost is a sustainable practice for managing the fertility and productivity of the land. This includes the adoption and promotion of traditional practices for crop farming such as the use of Zai pits which concentrates water and nutrients in the roots of the crop and rejuvenates land fertility. Moreover, agroforestry and low tillage agriculture also contribute toward protecting the moisture in the soil. Sustainable pasture management is also crucial for restoring dryland areas affected by overgrazing. National governments can recognize and constitute pastures as protected land to prevent their utilization for other purposes. Besides, governments could also encourage alternative livelihoods such as greenhouse agriculture and tourism which provides sustenance without putting pressure on land and its resources. Integration of land and water management is also essential to avoid degradation, salination, and erosion of soil. However, these efforts need to be in line with the practices and policies adopted by the countries and must be implemented immediately to curb the disastrous effects of land degradation and desertification.

(Ishita Singh is a second year student of the MA International Studies Program batch of 2018-20 at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Review of Global Affairs or of Symbiosis School of International Studies.