Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought

Extra 593 million hectares of agricultural land, an area nearly twice the size of India, will be required by 2050 over 2010 levels. Avijit Ghosh / UNCCDD Photo Contest 2018

Important Points:

  • Nearly three quarters of the Earth’s ice-free land has been transformed, mainly to meet the demand for food, raw materials and human settlement.
  • Land degradation is negatively impacting the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people.
  • Land use change is the primary transmission pathway for emerging infectious diseases of humans, over 60% of which are zoonotic.
  • Current commitments from over 100 countries specify the restoration of almost 1 billion hectares of land over the next decade – an area almost the size of China.
  • The Delhi Declaration of 2019 called for better access and stewardship over land, and emphasised gender-sensitive transformative projects.
  • In India, over the last 10 years, around 3 million hectares of forest cover has been added. This has enhanced the combined forest cover to almost one-fourth of the country’s total area.
  • India is on track to achieve its national commitment of Land degradation neutrality by 2030.  
  • India is also working towards restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. This would contribute to India’s commitment to achieve an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Desertification is a phenomenon that ranks among the greatest environmental challenges of our time. Although desertification can include the encroachment of sand dunes on land, it doesn’t refer to the advance of deserts. Rather, it is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by climate change and mainly human activities: unsustainable farming that depletes the nutrients in the soil, mining, overgrazing (animals eat away grasses and erode topsoil with their hooves) and clear-cutting of land, when the tree and plant cover that binds the soil is removed. It occurs when trees and bushes are stripped away for fuelwood and timber, or to clear land for cultivation. Wind and water erosion aggravate the damage, carrying away topsoil and leaving behind a highly infertile mix of dust and sand. It is the combination of these factors that transforms degraded land into desert. 

What do we mean by Desertification – Desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. It is caused primarily by human activities and climatic variations. Desertification does not refer to the expansion of existing deserts. It occurs because dryland ecosystems, which cover over one third of the world’s land area, are extremely vulnerable to overexploitation and inappropriate land use. Poverty, political instability, deforestation, overgrazing and bad irrigation practices can all undermine the productivity of the land.

What is the impact of Desertification – When the land degrades and stops being productive, natural spaces deteriorate and transform. Thus, greenhouse gas emissions increase and biodiversity decreases. It also means there are fewer wild spaces to buffer zoonoses, such as COVID-19, and protect us from extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, and sand and dust storms.

Desertification is a global issue, with serious implications worldwide for biodiversity, eco-safety, poverty eradication, socio-economic stability and sustainable development.

Drylands are already fragile. As they become degraded, the impact on people, livestock and environment can be devastating. Some 50 million people may be displaced within the next 10 years as a result of desertification.

The issue of desertification is not new though — it played a significant role in human history, contributing to the collapse of several large empires, and the displacement of local populations. But today, the pace of arable land degradation is estimated at 30 to 35 times the historical rate.

Some two billion people depend on ecosystems in dry land areas, 90% of whom live in developing countries. A downward spiral is created in many underdeveloped countries, where overpopulation causes pressure to exploit drylands for farming. These marginally productive regions are overgrazed, the land is exhausted and groundwater is overdrafted.

Benefits of restoring land – Restoring degraded land brings economic resilience, creates jobs, raises incomes and increases food security. It helps biodiversity to recover. It locks away the atmospheric carbon warming the Earth, slowing climate change. It can also lessen the impacts of climate change and underpin a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Avoiding, slowing and reversing the loss of productive land and natural ecosystems now is both urgent and important for a swift recovery from the current pandemic and for guaranteeing the long-term survival of people and the planet.

Actions that can be taken to reduce desertification –

Some actions could help to reduce desertification:

  • Reforestation and tree regeneration.
  • Water management — saving, reuse of treated water, rainwater harvesting, desalination, or direct use of seawater for salt-loving plants.
  • Buttressing the soil through the use of sand fences, shelter belts, woodlots and windbreaks.
  • Enrichment and hyper-fertilizing of soil through planting.
  • Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), enabling native sprouting tree growth through selective pruning of shrub shoots. The residue from pruned tress can be used to provide mulching for fields thus increasing soil water retention and reducing evaporation.

Success Story – Banni region in Rann of Kutch in Gujarat illustrates how restoration of land can start a virtuous cycle of good soil health, increased land productivity, food security and improved livelihoods. In Banni region, land restoration was done by developing grasslands, which helped in achieving land degradation neutrality.  It also supports pastoral activities and livelihood by promoting animal husbandry. This example shows that there is a need to devise effective strategies for land restoration while promoting indigenous techniques.

India’s role in International Co-operation – India is assisting fellow developing countries to develop land restoration strategies. A Centre of Excellence is being set up in India to promote a scientific approach towards land degradation issues.






Categories: POINT IAS

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