The world’s drylands, contrary to popular misconceptions of being barren unproductive land, contain some of the most valuable and vital ecosystems on the planet. These dryland environments have surprising diversity and resiliency, supporting over two billion people, approximately thirty-five percent of the global population (UNEP, 2003). In fact, approximately seventy percent of Africans depend directly on drylands for their daily livelihood (UNEP, 2003). However, these precious and crucial areas are at a crossroad, endangered and threatened by the devastating process of desertification. There are over one hundred definitions for the term desertification’, however the most widely used and current definition is as follows: desertification refers to the land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions due to human activities and climate variations, often leading to the permanent loss of soil productivity and the thinning out of the vegetative cover (UNCCD, 2003). It is important to note that desertification is not the expansion and contraction of deserts or hyper-arid territories, which grow and decrease both naturally and cyclically. French ecologist Louis Lavauden first used the term desertification in 1927 and French botanist Andre Aubreville, when witnessing the land degradation occurring in North and West Africa in 1949 popularized this term (Dregne, 242). The causes of desertification include overgrazing, overcultivation, deforestation and poor irrigation practices. Climatic variations, such as changes in wind speed, precipitation and temperature can influence or increase desertification rates, but they are not catalysts to the process- it is the exploitative actions of humans that trigger desertification (Glantz, 146). The most exploited area historically has been Africa. In the Sahel (transition zone between the Sahara and the Savanna) of West Africa during the period of 1968 to 1973, desertification was a main cause of the deaths of over 100,000 people and 12 million cattle, as well as the disruption of social organizations from villages to the national level (USGS, 1997). As a result of the catastrophic devastation in the Sahel, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was held in Nairobi, Kenya in 1977, where an agreement was reached to eradicate desertification by the year 2000. Obviously this goal was not achieved. Countries and organizations, notably in the industrialized world, have been unwilling to provide significant and sufficient financial and economic aid to countries most impacted by this issue (Mainguet, 2003). Consequently, desertification is out of control, threatening the sustainability of the world’s environment, disrupting social structures and well-being, and impairing economic growth. This crisis reaches beyond the local, directly affected communities, impacting and jeopardizing world stability. Environmentally, desertification reduces the world’s freshwater reserves due to water over consumption and irrigation mismanagement, decreases genetic diversity through soil erosion and plant destruction, and also accelerates the carbon exchange process by damaging carbon sinks’. Socially, desertification causes population displacement as people search for better living conditions, often leading to conflicts and wars. Another social consequence is a dramatic reduction in the world’s food supply due to the depletion of vital dryland vegetation and a decline in crop yields. Desertification is also linked to a number of health issues such as malnutrition, as clean water and sufficient food resources are extremely scarce. Economically, income potential is lost because land is unproductive, and monetary funds are devoted towards combating desertification, compromising economic growth and development. Crisis management becomes more important than achieving economic goals. Furthermore, increasing levels of poverty have resulted due to dire economic conditions. The international body must devote more time, resources and energy to find effective and long-term solutions that will benefit not only directly-affected areas, but the world at large. The devastating environmental, social and economic ramifications of desertification must be addressed immediately, cooperatively and without hesitation, before the window of opportunity is lost.
Desertification has created and encouraged a number of major environmental problems, and has endangered the sustainability of a diverse and clean global environment. Through the use of poor irrigation practices and exploitative human actions for profit, water has been over consumed and desertification has occurred near areas surrounding fresh water supplies, reducing or depleting these reserves. In the desertification process, the shorelines and the aquatic land and soil becomes eroded, salinized and degraded. Thus, feeder rivers decline in quantity and supply, river flow rates decrease and ultimately freshwater reserves are polluted and/or reduced. The reduction of river flow rates and the lowering of groundwater levels leads to the “silting up of estuaries, the encroachment of salt water into water tables, and the pollution of water by suspended particles and salination” (FAO, 2003). These problems are particularly evident in the Aral Sea in Asia, which at one point was the fourth largest lake in the world (Aral Sea Homepage, 2002). During the Soviet era in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the communist central planners had little regard for water conservation, and over consumed this resource. In order to meet the demand for agricultural irrigation the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) “diverted water from rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea” (Pacific Island Travel: Desertification, 1999). These exploitative actions dropped water levels by one-third because feeder rivers could no longer replenish the large lake, as illustrated in Appendix 1 (Pacific Island Travel: Desertification, 1999). Not only has the shorelines of the Aral Sea declined, but Lake Chad in Africa has followed a similar fate. Desertification in the Lake Chad region has dropped water levels far below the average dry season amount of “10,000 square kilometers to only 839 square kilometers” (Earth Crash Earth Spirit, 2001). The reduction of water levels in Lake Chad and the Aral Sea decreases their ability to moderate the local climate, resulting in more extreme variations in temperature and precipitation. Therefore, local ecosystems are disrupted and even destroyed, as the climate becomes more continental in nature, and vital water supplies are scarce or depleted.
Desertification reduces the biodiversity and genetic diversity of dryland ecosystems, impairing the sustainability of plants, animals and even humans in these regions. As a consequence of desertification, the soil of arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas becomes eroded, resulting in unproductive and literally useless land. This disrupts the habitats and food sources for many organisms, making sustainable life in these areas very difficult (FAO, 2003). Furthermore, because of freshwater and food scarcity, the life expectancy and actual existence for many species is threatened. This grave consequence was evident in the western African country of Mauritania, where the desertification process, from 1970 to 1980, “killed approximately 15,000 people and over 500,000 various plants and animals were eradicated” (CIESIN, 2003). Unfortunately, as the severity of desertification escalates in countries like Mauritania, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain biologically diverse ecosystems needed to support the lives of plants, animals and humans.
Through the ecological destruction and imbalance caused by desertification, the carbon exchange process is accelerated. Dryland vegetation and soil are crucial storage devices for carbon, and contain “practically half the total quantity of carbon” (FAO, 2003). Once these elements thin out or become unproductive due to desertification, carbon is released into the atmosphere. It is estimated that for every hectare of dryland vegetation or soil that is depleted or unusable, 30 tonnes of carbon is no longer stored and is released into the atmosphere (FAO, 2003). This elevation of atmospheric carbon contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
Desertification also has major social consequences, disrupting the social fabric and standard of living for many traditional and Native peoples. On a global level, it threatens the stability and health of a growing population. In the desertification process land is degraded, making it extremely difficult to maintain a successful career and livelihood. Consequently, individuals are forced to relocate to areas with more livable conditions and stronger economic opportunities. This population displacement is evident in the migration of Mexicans to the United States:
“Some 70 percent of all land in Mexico is vulnerable to desertification, one reason why some 900,000 Mexicans leave home each year in search of a better life as migrant workers in the United States” (Environment News Service, 2003).
However, in the developing countries of Africa and Asia, impoverished individuals have no option but to become refugees, abandoning their previous livelihoods and simply struggling for survival. United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan stated that in sub-Saharan Africa, “the number of environmental refugees refugees due to environmental issues like desertification is expected to rise to 25 million in the next 20 years.” (Environment News Service, 2003). These refugee movements and population displacement have often caused political and social unrest, and even wars. As a result of desertification, countries fight for control of the scarce natural resources, since previous deposits are depleted or unusable (UNCCD, 2003). The strong, positive correlation between desertification and armed conflict is illustrated in Appendix 2. The population displacement, refugee movements and relationship to wars make desertification devastating to the social security of individuals in affected regions.
Desertification has caused a crisis in the world’s food supply, creating concern over the sustainability of an increasing population. Dryland areas are home to some of the most important crops and “genetic strains of cultivated plants which form the basis of the food and health of the world’s population” (FAO, 2003). Some of these products include cereal crops, oil seeds, grain legumes and root crops. In drylands affected by desertification, land that was once agriculturally viable can no longer be used, as it is essentially a wasteland. Even if agriculture is feasible, the nutrient poor soil makes it extremely difficult to grow a large quantity of a certain crop. This has crippled the food supply, at a time when its sustainability is already in question. According to the United Nations:
“a nutritionally adequate diet for the world’s growing population implies tripling food production over the next 50 years under favourable conditions. If desertification is not stopped and reversed, food yields in many affected areas will decline” (UNCCD, 2003).
Thus, desertification creates uncertainty as to the adequacy of the world’s food production, endangering the supportability of a growing population.
There is a strong, positive correlation between desertification and serious health concerns and diseases. The increasing rate of desertified areas has created a crisis in the world’s food and water supplies. As a result, food and water are extremely scarce, and “malnutrition, starvation and ultimately famine will result from desertification” (UNCCD, 2003). This has prompted concern and anxiety within the World Health Organization stating, “we the WHO is becoming increasingly worried with the consequences of desertification, such as malnutrition and famine” (WHO Denmark, 2003). Desertification is also indirectly linked to many severe epidemics, notably in Africa. The drying of water sources due to desertification forces people to use heavily polluted water, leading to disastrous health problems. According to the World Health Organization, “desertification and droughts can increase water-related diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and diarrhoeal diseases” (WHO Denmark, 2003). Recent research and studies have also suggested that malaria incidences have escalated significantly in desertified areas. The strong, positive correlation between malaria and desertification is depicted in Appendix 3. Furthermore, soil erosion and land degradation has resulted in the creation of dust storms and poor air quality. This has had a very negative toll on human health and “results in mental stress, eye infections, respiratory illnesses and allergies” (UNCCD, 2003). Therefore, desertification is strongly associated with dust storms, poor air quality, malnutrition, famine, and epidemics, all of which are enormously hazardous to human health.
In an attempt to combat and rehabilitate desertified land, precious economic funds are required and exhausted. Consequently, resources are drained, resulting in the weakening of local economies and the compromising of national development goals. As the desertification process continues, attention and money is spent on crisis management, not on growth and development. Due to the depletion of natural resources, desertification contributes to decreased income levels and productivity losses. This is specifically true in agricultural regions and severely stunts economic growth. The worldwide cost of desertification, expressed as income foregone amounts to approximately $11 billion for irrigated land, $8 billion for rainfed cropland, and $23 billion for rangeland, for a total cost of $42 billion (CIESIN, 2003). This value may not seem astronomical for developed countries like Canada, Britain and the United States, but for nations in the developing world, these figures are devastating. According to an unpublished World Bank study, “the depletion of natural resources causing income loss in one Sahelian country was equivalent to 20% of its Gross Domestic Product” (UNCCD, 2003). Desertification has thus crippled present earnings as well as income potential in the future, hurting not only individuals but also entire economies.
In an effort to improve future conditions, developing countries devote significant amounts of their limited monetary resources to combating and rehabilitating land affected by desertification, severely impeding their economic growth. Land rehabilitation costs are those incurred for stopping further degradation and to restore the land to something approaching its original condition. Unfortunately, this requires a significant amount of investment that could have been used for economic development, as opposed to just repairing land. On a per hectare basis, it is estimated that “a cost of $2,000 is needed to improve irrigated land, $400 for rainfed cropland, and $40 for rangeland” (CIESIN, 2003). To people living in the developing world, these costs consume much, if not all of their incomes, obviously crippling their careers and livelihoods. Although there is the potential to repair and rehabilitate almost all land affected by desertification only “52 per cent (1,860 million hectares) can pay back the cost of rehabilitation” (CIESIN, 2003). Thus, many farmers and individuals reclaim land, but because of huge overriding costs, they actually lose money as productivity remains stagnant. Therefore, limited monetary funds are spent towards crisis management, sacrificing national development and economic growth.
Desertification is directly linked to the mass poverty occurring in the developing world. Individuals consistently endure an impoverished lifestyle because income potential is foregone, and resources are devoted towards rehabilitation, therefore scarce economic funds are depleted. United Nations Secretary Kofi Anna states:
“Because the poor often farm degraded land, desertification is both a cause and consequence to poverty Fighting desertification must be an integral part of our wider efforts to eradicate poverty” (Environment News Service, 2003).
If the desertification process continues to grow exponentially, mass poverty will also increase both in size and in severity. Thus, in order to address poverty, desertification must be contained and controlled.
Currently, desertification affects over 250 million people and a third of the earth’s land surface (4 billion hectares) (UNCCD, 2003). In addition, the livelihoods of over one billion people in over 100 countries are indirectly threatened (UNCCD, 2003), as shown in the map in Appendix 4. It is estimated that in the next 50 years, another billion people will fall victim to the wrath of desertification and its related environmental, social, and economic ramifications (CIESIN, 2003). The depletion and contamination of fresh water sources, the reduction in biodiversity, and the acceleration of the carbon cycle make desertification devastating to the sustainability of the environment. Socially, desertification forces people to migrate which may eventually lead to wars or conflicts, creates a major catastrophe for the world’s food supply, and is scientifically correlated to major health concerns, even epidemics such as malaria. The economic status of developing countries impacted by the desertification process is jeopardized as high levels of income are foregone, and resources are devoted towards rehabilitation, not towards growth and development. Furthermore, poverty in African and Asian nations has grown exponentially due to this process, creating humanitarian and economic crises. The world’s future is at stake, and it is imperative that the global community acts now. Desertification is a preventable process, but requires a coordinated approach involving effort from the local, national and global communities. Local and national governments must implement methods of soil and water conservation, and utilize traditional agricultural systems that support positive environmental strategies. The industrialized world must supply the economic and technological aid necessary for these conservation techniques (UNCCD, 2003). Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology is a modern technique that can be effectively used in combating desertification. GPS satellites can actually pinpoint and locate areas vulnerable or prone to desertification, acting as excellent early warning signs. This allows governments to implement various techniques and policies to prevent damage done by desertification. As former United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in a letter to governors on February 26, 1937, “a nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself” (Dingle, 2003). The battle to combat desertification is a war that can be lost, but must be won. Now is the time to win the fight before this glimmer of hope disappears.
Appendix 1: Time-Series Photos of the Aral Sea
Source: Aral Sea Homepage, 2002
These pictures were taken using LANDSAT TM satellite technology. The reddish shade represents the vegetation around the Aral Sea. The northern part of the image is the shoreline of the sea. Notice how in 1979 the shoreline is quite large, while in 1989 it is non-existent, illustrating the decreasing water levels. What is also striking is the white shade on the satellite photo from 1989. This represents an artificial saltpan, caused by desertification and desiccation.
Appendix 2: World Map of Armed Conflicts and Desertification
Source: CIESIN, 2003
Most of the armed conflicts occurring from 1989-97 are in highly desertified areas. Thus, there is a strong positive correlation between desertification and armed conflict.
Appendix 3: Map of Desertification Vulnerability and Malaria Risk in Africa
For both maps, red represents the highest severity, followed by orange, yellow, green and lastly white. In desertified areas, much of the population is at risk of malaria, thus there is a strong, positive correlation between desertification and malaria.
Appendix 4: World Map of Desertification Vulnerability
Source: CIESIN, 2003
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