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Goat husbandry is common through the Norte Chico of Chile, however it produces severe erosion and desertification. Image from upper Limarí River

Desertification is the extreme deterioration of land in arid and dry sub-humid areas due to loss of vegetation and soil moisture; desertification results chiefly from man-made activities and influenced by climatic variations. It is principally caused by overgrazing, overdrafting of groundwater and diversion of water from rivers for human consumption and industrial use, all of these processes fundamentally driven by overpopulation.

A major impact of desertification is biodiversity loss and loss of productive capacity, for example, by transition from land dominated by shrublands to non-native grasslands. In the semi-arid regions of southern California, many coastal sage scrub and chaparral ecosystems have been replaced by non-native, invasive grasses due to the shortening of fire return intervals. This can create a monoculture of annual grass that cannot support the wide range of animals once found in the original ecosystem. In Madagascar's central highland plateau, 10% of the entire country has been lost to desertification due to slash and burn agriculture by indigenous peoples.



Sand dunes advancing on Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania.

Desertification is induced by several factors, primarily anthropogenic causes, which began in the Holocene era and continue at the highest pace today. The primary reasons for desertification are overgrazing, over-cultivation, increased fire frequency, water impoundment, deforestation, overdrafting of groundwater, increased soil salinity, and global climate change.[1]

Deserts may be separated from surrounding, less arid areas by mountains and other contrasting landforms that reflect fundamental structural differences in the terrain. In other areas, desert fringes form a gradual transition from a dry to a more humid environment, making it more subtle to determine the desert border. These transition zones can have fragile, delicately balanced ecosystems. Desert fringes often are a mosaic of microclimates. Small pieces of wood support vegetation that picks up heat from the hot winds and protects the land from the prevailing winds. After rainfall the vegetated areas are distinctly cooler than the surroundings.

In these marginal areas activity centres may stress the ecosystem beyond its tolerance limit, resulting in degradation of the land. By pounding the soil with their hooves, livestock compact the substrate, increase the proportion of fine material, and reduce the percolation rate of the soil, thus encouraging erosion by wind and water. Grazing and collection of firewood reduce or eliminate plants that bind the soil and prevent erosion. All these come about due to the trend towards settling in one area instead of a nomadic culture.

Sand dunes can encroach on human habitats. Sand dunes move through a few different means, all of them assisted by wind. One way that dunes can move is through saltation, where sand particles skip along the ground like a rock thrown across a pond might skip across the water's surface. When these skipping particles land, they may knock into other particles and cause them to skip as well. With slightly stronger winds, particles collide in mid-air, causing sheet flows. In a major dust storm, dunes may move tens of meters through such sheet flows. And like snow, sand avalanches, falling down the steep slopes of the dunes that face away from the winds, also moving the dunes forward.

It is a common misconception that droughts by themselves cause desertification. While drought is a contributing factor, the root causes are all related to man's overexploitation of the environment.[1] Droughts are common in arid and semiarid lands, and well-managed lands can recover from drought when the rains return. Continued land abuse during droughts, however, increases land degradation. Increased population and livestock pressure on marginal lands has accelerated desertification. In some areas, nomads moving to less arid areas disrupt the local ecosystem and increase the rate of erosion of the land. Nomads typically try to escape the desert, but because of their land-use practices, they are bringing the desert with them.

Relatively small climate changes could result in abrupt changes to vegetative cover. In 2006, Woods Hole Research Center, reporting on the second consecutive year of drought in the Amazon basin and an experiment that had been running since 2002, said that the Amazon forest in its present form could survive only three successive years of drought before potentially turning into desert.[2] Scientists at the Brazilian National Institute of Amazonian Research argued that this drought response was pushing the rainforest towards a "tipping point". It concluded that the forest is on the brink of being turned into savanna or desert, with catastrophic consequences for CO2 in the atmosphere.[3] According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the combination of climate change and deforestation increases the drying effect of dead trees that fuels forest fires.[4]

Some arid and semi-arid lands can support crops, but additional pressure from greater populations or decreases in rainfall can lead to the few plants present disappearing. The soil becomes exposed to wind, causing soil particles to be deposited elsewhere. The top layer becomes eroded. With the removal of shade, rates of evaporation increase and salts become drawn up to the surface. This increases soil salinity which inhibits plant growth. The loss of plants causes less moisture to be retained in the area, which may change the climate pattern leading to lower rainfall.

This degradation of formerly productive land is a complex process. It involves multiple causes, and it proceeds at varying rates in different climates. Desertification may intensify a general climatic trend toward greater aridity, or it may initiate a change in local climate. Desertification does not occur in linear, easily mappable patterns. Deserts advance erratically, forming patches on their borders. Areas far from natural deserts can degrade quickly to barren soil, rock, or sand through poor land management. The presence of a nearby desert has no direct relationship to desertification. Unfortunately, an area undergoing desertification is brought to public attention only after the process is well under way. Often little data are available to indicate the previous state of the ecosystem or the rate of degradation.

Desertification is both an environmental and developmental problem. It affects local environments and populations’ ways of life. Its effects, however, have more global ramifications concerning biodiversity, climatic change and water resources. The degradation of terrain is directly linked to human activity and constitutes both one of the consequences of poor development and a major obstacle to the sustainable development of dryland zones.[5]

Combating desertification is complex and difficult, usually impossible without alteration of land management practises that led to the desertification. Over-exploitation of the land and climate variations can have identical impacts and be connected in feedbacks, which makes it very difficult to choose the right mitigation strategy. Investigating the historic desertification plays a special role since it allows better distinguishing of human and natural factors. In this context, recent research about historic desertification in Jordan questions the dominant role of man. It seems possible that current measures like reforestation projects cannot achieve their goals if global warming continues.

Atmospheric CO2 deficiency also may have a significant effect.[6][7]

Prehistoric patterns

Desertification is a historic phenomenon; the world's great deserts were formed by natural processes interacting over long intervals of time. During most of these times, deserts have grown and shrunk independent of human activities. Paleodeserts are large sand seas now inactive because they are stabilized by vegetation, some extending beyond the present margins of core deserts, such as the Sahara. Many deserts in western Asia arose because of an overpopulation of prehistoric species and subspecies during the late Cretaceous era.

Dated fossil pollen indicates that today's Sahara desert has been changing between desert and fertile savanna. Studies also show that prehistorically the advance and retreat of deserts tracked yearly rainfall, whereas a pattern of increasing amounts of desert began with human-driven activities of overgrazing and deforestation.

A chief difference of prehistoric versus present desertification is the much greater rate of desertification than in prehistoric and geologic time scales, due to anthropogenic influences.

Historical and current desertification

Overgrazing and to a lesser extent drought in the 1930s transformed parts of the Great Plains in the United States into the "Dust Bowl". During that time, a considerable fraction of the plains population abandoned their homes to escape the unproductive lands. Improved agricultural and water management have prevented a disaster of the earlier magnitude from recurring, but desertification presently affects tens of millions of people with primary occurrence in the lesser developed countries.

Lake Chad in a 2001 satellite image, with the actual lake in blue. The lake has shrunk by 95% since the 1960s.[8]

Desertification is widespread in many areas of the People's Republic of China. The populations of rural areas have increased since 1949 for economical reasons as more people have settled there. While there has been an increase in livestock, the land available for grazing has decreased. Also the importing of European cattle such as Friesian and Simmental, which have higher grazing intensity, has exacerbated matters.

Human overpopulation is leading to destruction of tropical wet forests and tropical dry forests, due to widening practices of slash-and-burn and other methods of subsistence farming in lesser developed countries. A sequel to the deforestation is typically large scale erosion, loss of soil nutrients and sometimes total desertification. Examples of this extreme outcome can be seen on Madagascar's central highland plateau, where about seven percent of the country's total land mass has become barren, sterile land.

Overgrazing has made the Rio Puerco Basin of central New Mexico one of the most eroded river basins of the western United States and has increased the high sediment content of the river.[9] Overgrazing is also contributing to desertification in some parts of Chile, Ethiopia, Morocco and other countries. Overgrazing is also an issue with some regions of South Africa such as the Waterberg Massif, although restoration of native habitat and game has been pursued vigorously since about 1980.

Another example of desertification occurring is in the Sahel. The chief cause of desertification in the Sahel is slash-and-burn farming practised by an expanding human population.[10] The Sahara is expanding south at a rate of up to 48 kilometres per year.[11]

Ghana[12] and Nigeria currently experience desertification; in the latter, desertification overtakes about 1,355 square miles (3,510 km2) of land per year. The Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, are also affected. More than 80% of Afghanistan's and Pakistan's land could be subject to soil erosion and desertification.[13] In Kazakhstan, nearly half of the cropland has been abandoned since 1980. In Iran, sand storms were said to have buried 124 villages in Sistan and Baluchestan Province in 2002, and they had to be abandoned. In Latin America, Mexico and Brazil are affected by desertification.[14] Desertification is a historic phenomenon; the world's great deserts were formed by natural processes interacting over long intervals of time. During most of these times, deserts have grown and shrunk independent of human activities. Paleodeserts are large sand seas now inactive because they are stabilized by vegetation, some extending beyond the present margins of core deserts, such as the Sahara. Many deserts in western Asia arose because of an overpopulation of prehistoric species and subspecies during the late Cretaceous era.

Dated fossil pollen indicates that today's Sahara desert has been changing between desert and fertile savanna. Studies also show that prehistorically the advance and retreat of deserts tracked yearly rainfall, whereas a pattern of increasing amounts of desert began with human-driven activities of overgrazing and deforestation.

A chief difference of prehistoric versus present desertification is the much greater rate of desertification than in prehistoric and geologic time scales, due to anthropogenic influences.

Countering desertification

Trees are planted instead of sand fences to reduce sand accumulating in a UAE highway.
Anti-sand shields in north Sahara, Tunisia.

Desertification is recognized as a major threat to biodiversity. Some countries have developed Biodiversity Action Plans to counter its effects, particularly in relation to the protection of endangered flora and fauna.[15][16]

A number of methods have been tried in order to reduce the rate of desertification; however, most measures treat symptoms of sand movement and do not address the root causes of land modification such as overgrazing, unsustainable farming and deforestation. In developing countries under threat of desertification, many local people use trees for firewood and cooking which has increased the problem of land degradation and often even increased their poverty. In order to gain further supplies of fuel the local population add more pressure to the depleted forests; adding to the desertification process.

Techniques focus on two aspects: provisioning of water (e.g. by wells and energy intensive systems involving water pipes or over long distances) and fixating and hyper-fertilising soil.

Fixating the soil is often done through the use of shelter belts, woodlots and windbreaks. Windbreaks are made from trees and bushes and are used to reduce soil erosion and evapotranspiration. They were widely encouraged by development agencies from the middle of the 1980s in the Sahel area of Africa. Another approach is the spraying of petroleum or nano clay[17] over semi-arid cropland. This is often done in areas where either petroleum or nano clay is easily and cheaply obtainable (eg Iran). In both cases, the application of the material coats seedlings to prevent moisture loss and stop them being blown away.

Some soils (e.g. clay), due to lack of water can become consolidated rather than porous (as in the case of sandy soils). Some techniques as zaï or tillage are then used to still allow the planting of crops.[18]

Enriching of the soil and restoration of its fertility is often done by plants. Of these, the Leguminous plants which extract nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil, and food crops/trees as grains, barley, beans and dates are the most important.

When housing is foreseen in or near a reforestation area, organic waste material (e.g. hazelnut shells, bamboo, chicken manure) can be made into biochar or Terra preta nova by a pyrolysis unit. This substance may be used to enrich planting spaces for high-demanding crops.[19]

Finally, some approaches as stacking stones around the base of trees and artificial groove-digging also help increase the local success of crop survival. Stacked stones help to collect morning dew and retain soil moisture. Artificial grooves are dug in the ground as to retain rainfall and trap wind-blown seeds. [20][21]

In order to solve the problem of cutting trees for personal energy requirements, solutions as Solar ovens and efficient wood burning cook stoves are advocated as a means to relieve pressure upon the environment; however, these techniques are generally prohibitively expensive in the very regions where they are needed.

While desertification has received some publicity by the news media, most people are unaware of the extent of environmental degradation of productive lands and the expansion of deserts. In 1988 Ridley Nelson pointed out that desertification is a subtle and complex process of deterioration.

At the local level, individuals and governments can temporarily forestall desertification. Sand fences are used throughout the Middle East and the US, in the same way snow fences are used in the north. Placement of straw grids, each up to a square meter in area, will also decrease the surface wind velocity. Shrubs and trees planted within the grids are protected by the straw until they take root. However, some studies suggest that planting of trees depletes water supplies in the area.[22] In areas where some water is available for irrigation, shrubs planted on the lower one-third of a dune's windward side will stabilize the dune. This vegetation decreases the wind velocity near the base of the dune and prevents much of the sand from moving. Higher velocity winds at the top of the dune level it off and trees can be planted atop these flattened surfaces.

Jojoba plantations, such as those shown, have played a role in combating edge effects of desertification in the Thar Desert, India.

Oases and farmlands in windy regions are often protected by the approach described above by planting tree fences or grass belts in order to reduce erosion and walking dunes. Also, small projects as oases often section their plot of land by placing a barrier of thorny bushes or other obstacles to keep grazing animals away from the food crops. Instead, they provide water provisioning (eg from a well, ...) outside this barrier. They provide this service mainly to accommodate the animals of travelers (eg camels, ...). Sand that manages to pass through the grass belts can be caught in strips of trees planted as wind breaks 50 to 100 meters apart adjacent to the belts. Small plots of trees may also be scattered inside oases to stabilize the area. On a much larger scale, a "Green Wall of China", which will eventually stretch more than 5,700 kilometers in length, nearly as long as the Great Wall of China, is being planted in north-eastern China to protect "sandy lands" – deserts created by human activity.

There is another technique, which is controversial, that involves using livestock to rehabilitate land. This is based on the fact that many areas in the world which are heavily desertified were once grasslands and similar environments (the Sahara, areas in the USA that were affected by the Dust Bowl years[23]) and where substantial populations of large herbivores were once supported. By using livestock (which is contained within a portable fence so that they cannot wander away from the site) along with hay and seeds contained within, the land can be restored effectively, even on mine dumps.[24] In addition, people that hold livestock and that have a semi-nomadic livestyle (moving between fixed homes) such as nomadic pastoralists have significant interest in combating desertification of these areas.[25] Having these people to plant shelterbelts, windbreaks, trees or nitrogen-fixating crops in the vicinity of their homes would also help a lot.

Africa, with coordination from Senegal, has launched its own "green wall" project[26]. Trees will be planted on a 15 km wide land strip from Senegal to Djibouti. Aside from countering desert progression, the project is also aimed at creating new economic activities, especially thanks to tree products such as gum arabic [27]

More efficient use of existing water resources and control of salinization are other tools for mitigating arid lands. New ways are also being sought to find groundwater resources and to develop more effective ways of irrigating arid and semiarid lands. Research on the reclamation of deserts is also focusing on discovering proper crop rotation to protect fragile soil, on understanding how sand-fixing plants can be adapted to local environments, and on how overgrazing can be addressed. A proposal combining desert stabilization and renewable energy is Aerially Delivered Re-forestation and Erosion Control System - [28]

Architecture student Magnus Larsson won the 2008 Holcim Award "Next Generation" 1st prize for region Africa Middle East for his project "Dune anti-desertification architecture, Sokoto, Nigeria" and his design of a habitable wall using a microorganism with the ability to by solidifying the sand with the bacteria Bacillus pasteurii.[29] Larssons also presented the design at TED.[30]

Mitigation concepts

Sand fences can be used to control drifting of soil and sand and soil erosion.

A recent development is the Seawater Greenhouse and Seawater Forest. This proposal is to construct these devices on coastal deserts in order to create freshwater and grow food [31]

A similar approach is the Desert Rose concept [32]

These approaches are of widespread applicability, since the relative costs of pumping large quantities of seawater inland are low[33].

Another related concept is ADRECS - a system for rapidly delivering soil stabilisation and re forestation techniques coupled with renewable energy generation[34].

Desertification and poverty

Numerous authors underline the strong link between desertification and poverty. The proportion of poor people among populations is noticeably higher in dryland zones, especially among rural populations. This situation increases yet further as a function of land degradation because of the reduction in productivity, the precariousness of living conditions and difficulty of access to resources and opportunities.[35]

A downward spiral is created in many underdeveloped countries by overgrazing, land exhaustion and overdrafting of groundwater in many of the marginally productive world regions due to overpopulation pressures to exploit marginal drylands for farming. Decision-makers are understandably averse to invest in arid zones with low potential. This absence of investment contributes to the marginalisation of these zones.When unfavourable agro-climatic conditions are combined with an absence of infrastructure and access to markets, as well as poorly-adapted production techniques and an underfed and undereducated population, most such zones are excluded from development.[5]

See also


  1. ^ a b E.O. Wilson, The Future of Life, 2001
  2. ^ Amazon rainforest 'could become a desert' ... is on the brink of being turned into desert. The Independent, July 23, 2006. Retrieved 9 Jan 2010.
  3. ^ Dying Forest: One year to save the Amazon ... could tip the whole vast forest into a cycle of destruction. The Independent, July 23, 2006. Retrieved 9 Jan 2010.
  4. ^ Climate 'tipping points' near ... unleash devastating environmental, social and economic changes. World Wide Fund for Nature, 23 November 2009. Retrieved 9 Jan 2010.
  5. ^ a b Cornet A., 2002. Desertification and its relationship to the environment and development: a problem that affects us all. In: Ministère des Affaires étrangères/adpf, Johannesburg. World Summit on Sustainable Development. 2002. What is at stake? The contribution of scientists to the debate: 91-125..
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Shrinking African Lake Offers Lesson on Finite Resources
  9. ^ "Desertification", United States Geological Survey (1997)
  10. ^ "Desertification - a threat to the Sahel", August 1994
  11. ^ Hunger is spreading in Africa
  12. ^ "Ghana: Threats of Desertification Must Be Taken Seriously", Public Agenda (, May 21, 2007.
  13. ^ Afghanistan: Environmental crisis looms as conflict goes on
  14. ^ Lester R. Brown, "The Earth Is Shrinking: Advancing Deserts and Rising Seas Squeezing Civilization", Earth Policy Institute, November 15, 2006.
  15. ^ Techniques for Desert Reclamation by Andrew S. Goudie
  16. ^ Desert reclamation projects
  17. ^ Nano clay
  18. ^ Arid sandy soils becoming consolidated; zai-system
  19. ^ NGC Our good earth
  20. ^ Keita ID project ditches
  21. ^ Making of ditches against desertification
  22. ^ Planting trees may create deserts - earth - 29 July 2005 - New Scientist
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Nomadic pastoralists and reforestation
  26. ^ IISD RS summary of the International Conference on Renewable Energy in Africa - 16-18 April 2008 - Dakar, Senegal
  27. ^ FAO
  28. ^ [ADRECS - Aerially Delivered Reforestation and Erosion Control
  29. ^ Holcim Awards 2008 Africa Middle East "Next Generation" 1st prize: Dune anti-desertification architecture, Sokoto, Nigeria, Holcim awards. Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  30. ^ Magnus Larsson: Dune architect, Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  31. ^ The Sahara Project a new source of freshwater food and energy
  32. ^ Desert Rose - Claverton Group Energy Conference, Bath October 2008
  33. ^ claverton energy group article
  34. ^
  35. ^ Dobie, Ph. 2001.“Poverty and the drylands,” in Global Drylands Imperative, Challenge paper, Undp, Nairobi (Kenya) 16 p.


  • Batterbury, S.P.J. & A.Warren (2001) Desertification. in N. Smelser & P. Baltes (eds.) International Encyclopædia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier Press. Pp. 3526-3529
  • Benjaminsen, Tor A., and Gunvor Berge (2000). Timbuktu: myter, menneske, miljø. Oslo: Spartakus forlag
  • Lucke, Bernhard (2007): Demise of the Decapolis. Past and Present Desertification in the Context of Soil Development, Land Use, and Climate. Online at [1]
  • OUTGROWING THE EARTH: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables by Lester R. Brown
  • Geist, Helmut (2005) The Causes and Progression of Desertification, Abingdon: Ashgate
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Desertification Synthesis Report
  • Reynolds, James F., and D. Mark Stafford Smith (ed.) (2002) Global Desertification – Do Humans Cause Deserts? Dahlem Workshop Report 88, Berlin: Dahlem University Press
  • Stock, Robert (1995). Africa South of the Sahara. New York: The Guilford Press
  • Barbault R., Cornet A., Jouzel J., Mégie G., Sachs I., Weber J. (2002). Johannesburg. World Summit on Sustainable Development. 2002. What is at stake? The contribution of scientists to the debate. Ministère des Affaires étrangères/adpf.
  • Holtz, Uwe: Implementing the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification from a parliamentary point of view - Critical assessment and challenges ahead, Bonn 2007, in:

External links


 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government document "".


Simple English

[[File: |thumb|right|200px|A ship left behind because of the retreat of the Aral Sea]] Desertification is the expansion of desert into the surrounding areas. The desert area in the world is getting bigger. Desertification usually happens on the edge of deserts.

There are many causes of desert spreading.

  • Climatic change (natural factor)

The distribution of rainfall in the surrounding area of desert is uneven. From 1970 onwards, the world's weather has been changing. There has been less rain, and the world is becoming drier. Drought affects the area surrounding. As a result, many crops and animals have died. There is no vegetation to protect the soil. The topsoil is removed by sudden flash floods or strong wind. This makes the soil erode and the desert spread towards the surrounding area.

  • Rapid population growth (human factor)


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