What is desertification? Though an unfamiliar term, it is rather intuitive. Desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semiarid, or dry subhumid regions due to climate variations and human activities such as over-cropping, overgrazing, improper irrigation practices and deforestation. Desertification occurs all across the world, but Sub-Saharan and Central Asian drylands are particularly vulnerable. Presently, somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the world’s land surface area is affected, jeopardizing the livelihoods of around 1.2 billion people.
Desertification’s devastating effects on the availability of food, water, fuel and building materials renders landscapes inhospitable to human life. In these sort of resourceless, fragile states, local conflicts over water or land can escalate into civil wars, sexual violence or genocide, as for instance, in the cases of Darfur, Mali, Chad and Afghanistan. Depleted and destabilized communities quickly become humanitarian crises, as those affected flee to become refugees and forced migrants, or stay and fall into radical resource-driven wars. Environmental disasters inevitably become human calamities. Therefore, in order to address issues of poverty, it is necessary to address environmental issues, and vice versa.
While desertification is perhaps not a global priority, it ought to be; many are working to combat its effects on land and people. The European Union (EU) is funding a four-year project called Wadis-Mar to counter desertification in North Africa where water scarcity and overexploitation of groundwater have diminished the region. While Wadis-Mar will utilize new technologies to combat this water crisis, a focus on education in responsible water sustainability and agricultural techniques is crucial to the continued success of the project. Likewise, the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) applies curative measures to communities across the world ravaged by desertification, from reforestation projects in South Africa’s Baviaanskloof Hartland to Chinese public education events that teach sustainability, land restoration and conservation.
Landscapes don’t have to decay and displace people. Understanding the reciprocity of humans’ relationship to the earth and modifying practices can help defeat the poverty cycle and restore people to their homes.
– Robin Lee