Desertification is a type of land degradation in which a relatively dry area of land becomes increasingly arid, typically losing its bodies of water as well as vegetation and wildlife. It is caused by a variety of factors, such as through climate change (particularly the current global warming), DeForestation and through the overexploitation of soil through human activity. When deserts appear automatically over the natural course of a planet’s life cycle, then it can be called a natural phenomenon; however, when deserts emerge due to the rampant and unchecked depletion of nutrients in soil that are essential for it to remain arable, then a virtual “soil death” can be spoken of, which traces its cause back to human overexploitation. Desertification is a significant global ecological and environmental problem.

Desertification, also called desertization, the process by which natural or human causes reduce the biological productivity of drylands (arid and semiarid lands). Declines in productivity may be the result of climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, poverty, political instability, unsustainable irrigation practices, or combinations of these factors. The concept does not refer to the physical expansion of existing deserts but rather to the various processes that threaten all dryland ecosystems, including deserts as well as grasslands and scrublands.

What is desertification?

Desertification refers to the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by climatic variations and human activities. It occurs on all continents (except Antarctica) and affects the livelihoods of millions of people, including a large proportion of the poor in drylands.

Desertification occurs on all continents except Antarctica and affects the livelihoods of millions of people, including a large proportion of the poor in drylands. Desertification takes place worldwide in drylands, and its effects are experienced locally, nationally, regionally, and globally. Drylands occupy 41% of Earth’s land area and are home to more than 2 billion people—a third of the human population in the year 2000. Drylands include all terrestrial regions where water scarcity limits the production of crops, forage, wood, and other ecosystem provisioning services. Formally, the MA definition encompasses all lands where the climate is classified as dry subhumid, semiarid, arid, or hyper-arid. Please see Appendix A for more details about their geography and demography.

Some 10–20% of drylands are already degraded (medium certainty). Based on these rough estimates, about 1–6% of the dryland people live in desertified areas, while a much larger number is under threat from further desertification. Scenarios of future development show that, if unchecked, desertification and degradation of ecosystem services in drylands will threaten future improvements in human well-being and possibly reverse gains in some regions. Therefore, desertification ranks among the greatest environmental challenges today and is a major impediment to meeting basic human needs in drylands.

Persistent, substantial reduction in the provision of ecosystem services as a result of water scarcity, intensive use of services, and climate change is a much greater threat in drylands than in non-dryland systems. In particular, the projected intensification of freshwater scarcity as a result of climate change will cause greater stresses in drylands. If left unmitigated, these stresses will further exacerbate desertification. The greatest vulnerability is ascribed to sub-Saharan and Central Asian drylands. For example, in three key regions of Africa—the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Africa—severe droughts occur on average once every 30 years. These droughts triple the number of people exposed to severe water scarcity at least once in every generation, leading to major food and health crises.

Desertification is a result of a long-term failure to balance demand for and supply of ecosystem services in drylands. The pressure is increasing on dryland ecosystems for providing services such as food, forage, fuel, building materials, and water for humans and livestock, for irrigation, and for sanitation. This increase is attributed to a combination of human factors and climatic factors. The former includes indirect factors like population pressure, socioeconomic and policy factors, and globalization phenomena like distortions to international food markets and direct factors like land use patterns and practices and climate-related processes. The climatic factors of concern include droughts and projected reduction in freshwater availability due to global warming. While the global and regional interplay of these factors is complex, it is possible to understand it at the local scale.