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Desertification: The decay of the land

Died Fish in a dried up empty reservoir or dam due to a summer heatwave, low rainfall, pollution and drought in north karnataka,India.
An empty reservoir in northern Karnataka. Image credit Lakshmiprasad Sindhnur / 123rf

Desertification is perhaps not as widely publicised an environmental issue as others, but this does not take away from the severity of the threat it poses – that of a fundamental threat to our way of life. India is beset by a plethora of environmental issues – desertification looms among them. 

As defined in a 2013 article in ScienceDirect, desertification refers to “a change in soil properties, vegetation or climate, which results in a persistent loss of ecosystem services that are fundamental to sustaining life. Desertification affects large dryland areas around the world and is a major cause of stress in human societies.” In 2013, a study found 168 countries around the world to be affected by desertification. In 2018, the World Atlas of Desertification revealed the troubling finding that more than 75 percent of the world’s land is degraded. More than ninety percent could suffer the same fate by 2050. 

India faces an acute threat of desertification and drought. As the country hosted the 14th Conference of Parties (COP 14) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), it was reported last year by Down to Earth, “according to Desertification and Land Degradation of Selected Districts of India, an atlas published by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Space Application Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad in 2018, some 96.40 million ha [hectares], or about thirty percent of the country’s total area, is undergoing degradation.” In the 2011-13 period, some states in India saw more than sixty percent of their area suffer from desertification. In Jharkhand, the figure was 68.98 percent.

The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. June 17. Holiday concept. Template for background, banner, card, poster with text inscription. Vector EPS10 illustration
World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought is an annual observance focusing on land degradation and desertification. Image credit: Nikita Bulygin / 123rf

The country is also staring down a water crisis. As my colleague Nicholas Parry noted for Health Issues India on the occasion of World Water Day earlier this year, “in 2018 a UNESCO report warned that India will face severe shortages of water by 2050. It is possible this eventuality comes sooner, rather than later…water demand is projected to surpass the supply in the near future. Groundwater reserves are on the decline, resulting in common usage of polluted water supplies, especially by India’s most economically deprived.

“Water distribution in India is heavily imbalanced upon economic lines, with the poorest having no choice but to consume often pathogen-riddled water simply to stave off the potential of dangerous levels of dehydration. Due to inadequate and unsafe water supply and unimproved sanitation, about 200,000 people, mostly children, die in India every year.”

The necessity of tackling desertification is at the crux of the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, which is observed today. As described by UNCCD, “the day is a unique moment to remind everyone that land degradation neutrality (LDN) is achievable through problem-solving, strong community involvement and co-operation at all levels.” World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, UNDCC explains

will in 2020 focus on changing public attitudes to the leading driver of desertification and land degradation: humanity’s relentless production and consumption. As populations become larger, wealthier and more urban, there is far greater demand for land to provide food, animal feed and fibre for clothing. Meanwhile, the health and productivity of existing arable land is declining, worsened by climate change. To have enough productive land to meet the demands of ten billion people by 2050, lifestyles need to change. Desertification and Drought Day, running under the slogan “Food. Feed. Fibre.” seeks to educate individuals on how to reduce their personal impact. Food, feed and fibre must also compete with expanding cities and the fuel industry. The end result is that land is being converted and degraded at unstainable [sic] rates, damaging production, ecosystems and biodiversity.”

Desertification incurs a number of health effects. As noted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the threats of desertification include “higher threats of malnutrition from reduced food and water supplies; more water- and food-borne diseases that result from poor hygiene and a lack of clean water; respiratory diseases caused by atmospheric dust from wind erosion and other air pollutants; the spread of infectious diseases as populations migrate.” 

4280514 - desert of rajastan. Image credit: Nikita Bulygin / 123rf
Desert area in Rajasthan. Image credit: Nikita Bulygin / 123rf

The causes of land degradation are manifold. The WHO outlines that “land degradation is caused by multiple forces, including extreme weather conditions particularly drought, and human activities that pollute or degrade the quality of soils and land utility negatively affecting food production, livelihoods, and the production and provision of other ecosystem goods and services.” With the acceleration of agricultural and industrial activity, including in India, the pace of desertification has understandably accelerated. According to the United Nations, desertification presently occurs at potentially 35 times the historical rate.

Last year, UNCCD parties “agreed…to make the Sustainable Development Goal target of achieving…(LDN, a national target for action.” This, according to the United Nations, entails that “besides the LDN agreement – whereby countries have pledged to halt the degradation of land to the point where ecosystems and land use can no longer be supported – there was a landmark decision to boost global efforts to mitigate and manage the risks of crippling drought.

“Countries will also now be expected to address insecurity of land tenure, including gender inequality; promote land restoration to reduce land-related carbon emissions; and mobilise innovative sources of finance from public and private sources to support the implementation of these decisions at a national level.” To India’s end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged that India will aim to achieve LDN by restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land – a target the country seems on track to meet. 

Of the environmental threats facing the world today, desertification ranks as one of the most pressing. What is done – or not done – in the next decade will have effects that will be felt for generations to come. This observance serves to distil the urgency of the moment – and to spur to action those in power, to preserve our environment, protect our health, and save our land.

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