Desertification means degradation of land in arid regions, semi-arid regions and dry-sub humid regions. It is actually dissipation of soil productivity which makes it almost impossible to cultivate food grains & other crops. The occurrences of land degradation often lead to formation of desert like condition. It displaces millions of people from their land, wipes out livelihoods & cultivable lands, causes death to plants and animals, chokes sources of water and also inflicts high damage to the economies. It has affected almost 169 countries including India, China, countries of Europe, Africa etc.
Like climate change, desertification is another massive threat to the global environment. It adds fuel to the repercussions of climate change. The major deserts of the world are expanding very rapidly, thus thousands of hectares of land every year are becoming sand dunes. It is high time to rehabilitate the degraded lands & stop expansion of deserts, or else it will lead to global food shortage, fuels, water, migrations and even conflicts between nations and threats to internal security. But, in order to rehabilitate these degraded lands we need to know the reasons behind it.
Causes of Desertification & its Impacts
Land degradation & desertification is an age old phenomenon. It is the outcome of deforestation, over-cultivation, over-grazing, industrialisation, high population and poor land use on one hand and floods, droughts and other climatic disruptions on other hand.
According to a report from International Resource Survey – a scientific body under UN Environment Programme, 25% of the global land area has already been degraded. Another survey report from Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that negative impact of land degradation has affected over 40% of the entire population the Earth. Simultaneously, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that soil is getting eroded 100 times faster than it is being formed. Further, it also reported that drought affected regions are increasing by over 1% every year for last five decades which had affected over 500 million since 1980. As recent reports reveals that more that 34% of the total land surface of the Earth and almost fifty percent of the farmlands have become a part of these dry lands, it is crucial to restore the health of the degraded land with immediate effect. In India, over 70% of the population is still dependent on agriculture for their livelihood with approximately 19 crore people are victims of under nourishment. The annual economic loss reported was as high as ₹3.17 lakh crore (2.5% of GDP) due to degraded and misuse of land. Majority of the residents of the dry land regions are poverty stricken and shortage of water is an acute problem there. Child mortality rate is usually very high is these regions. Poverty is a reason as well as the consequence of desertification. Additionally, the impact of climate change intensifies the formation of deserts while desertification exacerbates climate change. As vegetation trees & forest covers important sinks of carbon dioxide, with land degradation the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed get reduced which subsequently leads to a rise in emission level. Thus, land degradation & its severe impact on the food security has become a matter of national importance from social perspective on one arm and a vicious circle from purview of environment on the other arm.
Desertification leads to forced migration which severely affects the economy of a country. Young, trained and skilled people including doctors, teachers, nurses, and mechanics are usually among the first set of people who desert a desertified region. This is a huge loss to nation. Consequently, the migrants find very hard to find a proper job matching their training & skills. Hence, in most of the cases they are forced to remain underpaid or underutilized in the host country. Moreover, from the side the host countries, whenever migrants slips into the country irrespective of the reasons behind, it possess an enormous burden over their resources & social equations. Therefore, forced migration is not only a harmful for origin country but also for the host country and the migrants themselves as well. Instances of violent conflicts over land access are visible in Africa and Nigeria. Access to natural resources such as land and water has becoming a major issue in Africa while attacks from the terrorist group Boko Haram over land access and water were seen in Nigeria.
Ways to check Desertification & Rehabilitate Degraded Lands
The war against desertification demands huge investment and long-term commitment with no other alternatives. Over two billion hectares of global land demands urgent rehabilitation programmes. Agro-forestry & natural regeneration fully managed by farmers are good techniques to combat desertification. Apart from it, initiatives by small communities like planting fast-growing crops & plants, closing of degraded land areas for grazing activities, raising big and tall trees that provide barriers against sandstorm and local winds are also very effective. From government’s front, creating large green belts, launching projects to fix & stabilise sands, prioritising & harmonising forestry initiatives, programmes & policies will also provide a good help in combating. [some policies are National Water Policy 2012, National Forest Policy 1988, National Land Use Policy Outline 1988, National Livestock Policy 2013, National Policy for Farmers 2007, National Agricultural Policy 2000, National Policy on Biodiversity, National Environment Policy 2006 and National Biodiversity Action Plan 2008]
Additionally, by integrating poverty eradication programmes of the developing countries with strategies to combat desertification can also be of great help. The land & soil preservation efforts must be prioritised & mainstreamed. The accumulated funds kept for climate change mitigation & adaptation might be dovetailed to the anti-desertification programme.
Moreover, by conserving wetlands, mangroves, rangelands will not only help in combating desertification but also will help in absorbing huge amount of GHCs like CO2 from the atmosphere, thus would be an effective tool even against global warming. Besides these, afforestation and reforestations will also act as an effective measure.
Reducing, reversing and avoiding desertification would improve the fertility of soil and foster storage of carbon in soils & biomass which would help in greater agricultural productivity & food security. Preventing desertification is actually an attempt of restoring degraded lands.
India hosted Conference of Parties (COP) 14 in September 2019, under aegis of UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification) where the European Nations along with other 196 participating countries adopted the “New Delhi Declaration” where it was agreed by them that degradation of land is a major social, economic & environmental problem. They voluntarily adopted “land degradation neutrality” targets which involves restoration of degraded land areas by 2030.
The developed countries, under UNCCD, are supposed to share technologies with the developing nations for sustainable development of land. As per strategic framework adopted by UNCCD for the period beginning in 2018 and ending in 2030, primary focus would be improving the condition of devastated ecosystems, combating land degradation & desertification, contributing to land degradation neutrality and promoting sustainable land management. It also aims at adopting, managing and mitigating the effects of drought for enhancing the resilience of vulnerable ecosystems & population; mobilising resources for better implementation of the convention & improving the living scenarios of the people inhabiting in dry land ecosystems. A lot of programmes have been undertaken by the secretariat of the convention for achieving its mandate & a few of them has already been achieved by India although approximately 1/3rd of the country’s landmass still remains degraded & are prone to desertification.
In COP 14, PM Modi pointed that India is on the right course of achieving its Paris climate change targets and announced establishment of a Centre of Excellence at the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education for facilitating technological & scientific collaboration with South-South Cooperation & also with those who wishes to access knowledge& train manpower to effectively address land degradation.