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Strictly speaking, desertification should perhaps be defined as the making of a desert, but there is considerable disagreement amongst scientists over what exactly the term means the internet has over 100 different definitions. Confusion arises because nobody seems sure of the exact causes of desertification, or what the most important causes are. Chinese scientist Zhu, for instance, said desertification is an environmental degradation process created as a result of the influence of excessive human activities, defining the process as an extreme form of man-made land degradation, but completely missing the influence of climate change. Scientists are reluctant to put their necks on the line and say exactly why desertification occurs. The situation has not been helped by media reports over the last 30 years that have exaggerated the growth of the Sahara every time there is a new drought in Africa. The expansion and contraction Figure 1: Areas at risk from desertification


SEPTEMBER 2008 576 John Rutter

of the worlds arid areas is a situation that has been going on for millennia, but nowadays, with the increasing world population, more people than ever are at risk. The UN has issued perhaps the simplest definition when it says: Desertification is the ... destruction of the biological potential of the land which can ultimately lead to desertlike conditions. This definition leaves open the causes of desertification and both human and natural processes can be examined for their respective contributions. Africa but, as Figure 1 shows, no populated region of the planet remains unaffected. Desertification was a major cause of mass migration within 1930s USA and is now affecting huge areas of the former Russian republics of central Asia. It has been implicated in the shrinking of the Aral Sea and is also severe in parts of Europe including Portugal and Spain. While evidence on the ground shows that, in certain areas, the loss of productive land is taking place on a locally significant scale, there has recently been a great deal of debate as to whether or not the worldwide problem has been exaggerated. Official Chinese statistics, for instance, say the countrys deserts are shrinking by 7,585 sq km each year due to the efforts of local governments and people, compared with an annual expansion of 10,400 sq km at the end of the last century. The UN has also come under fire for putting too much emphasis on skewed information based on a questionnaire sent to sub-

A global problem
According to the UN, desertification puts at risk the health and well-being of more than 1.2 billion people in more than 100 countries. Other countries face indirect consequences, such as mass immigration from desertified areas. Often its most severe influence is seen in the damaging droughts and famines of sub-Saharan

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Key Severe risk Moderate risk Slight risk

1 Ethiopia 2 Sudan 3 Chad 4 Niger 5 Somalia 18% at risk 23% at risk 30% at risk 42% at risk 26% at risk

Source: US Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Survey Division, World Soil Resources, Washington, DC

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GeoFile Series 27 Issue 1 Fig 576_01 Mac/eps/illustrator 11 s/s NELSON THORNES PUBLISHING Artist: David Russell Illustration

September 2008 no.576 Causes of Desertification Figure 2: Severe rill and gully erosion More obvious is that, over the last 50 years, across the worlds desertification risk areas, there has been massive population growth. In some areas, the land has been rescued from soil erosion by protecting trees and conserving water, but, more often than not, it seems human mismanagement of marginal areas is the primary cause of desertification.

Population and poverty

The planets cultivatable land is, more or less, a finite resource being put under pressure by one that is less finite the growing population. In Mali, one of the countries of the Sahel which forms the border between the Sahara and the savanna lands further south, the population increased by 3% every year from 2000 to 2005, giving a total increase of around two million people in a country of 13 million. These extra people need land and food in a country that is already having trouble feeding itself. The story is the same across the Sahel (Figure 3) and in many other LEDCs where increasing populations put pressure on the land, causing degradation on a large scale. There are a number of different ways in which this pressure is felt: Overcultivation: peasants farming crops are being forced to increase the yield from their land. Fallow periods leaving the land bare to regenerate and regain nutrients are being ignored and the soil is losing fertility. Rising populations are forcing farmers into cropping more marginal areas on the fringes of the deserts. This is fine in years of abundant rainfall but when the rains fail the soils quickly degrade. Overgrazing: as the number of people has increased so has the worldwide animal population. Herds of cows, goats and sheep concentrate in certain areas, stripping the vegetation back and exposing the soil to erosion. Great pressure is put on cultivated areas around the boreholes and wells where the animals drink. The trampling of the ground by animals also leads to soil compaction, destroying the structure and leaving it open to erosion. Deforestation: rising populations need wood for building and fuel, leading to widespread destruction of trees. Since 1900, for instance, 90% of the forest cover has been cleared from the Ethiopian
Photolibrary/Oxford Scientific Source:

Figure 3: Population statistics for the countries of the Sahel (UK provided for comparison)
Country Population total (2005) Birth rate per 1000 population (2003) 34 34 48 43 48 43 45 33 37 12 Death rate per 1000 population (2003) 13 15 23 19 19 18 16 10 13 10 Population change average % per annum 20002005 2.4 3.0 3.0 3.0 3.6 2.5 3.0 2.2 3.7 0.3

Senegal 11,658,000 Mauritania 3,069,000 Mali 13,518,000 Burkina Faso 13,228,000 Niger 13,957,000 Nigeria 131,530,000 Chad 9,749,000 Sudan 36,233,000 Eritrea 4,401,000 United Kingdom 59,668,000

Source: Statistics from Collins Student World Atlas 2005 and 2007

Saharan countries in 1982, when the continent was in the grip of a series of exceptionally dry years and famine. It is evident, however, that parts of many semi-arid countries remain at risk from the threat of desertification, even if only on a small scale, and the reasons can be neatly separated into climatic factors and the problems caused by a growing world population.

by series of wet years but, apart from global warming, the cause of these climatic fluctuations which have seen rainfall 48% lower than average in the central savanna belt over the past 30 years could be a general shift in global wind patterns, or the El Nio phenomenon. The planet has had a variable climate for millennia. The driest deserts, such as the Atacama and the Namib, show few signs of climatic change, and the typical features of desertification such as rills and gullies (Figure 2) were carved into the landscape centuries ago. The influence of climatic change over the last few thousand years is more obvious in the deserts of Africa, North America and central Asia, but even here the evidence is not from the recent past.

Climate change
The media is obsessed with climate change, providing, as it does, an endless source of stories of doom and gloom. It is unsurprising, therefore, that desertification has also been blamed on the world getting warmer. In recent times, long periods of drought in Africa have been followed
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September 2008 no.576 Causes of Desertification highlands. Removing the trees exposes the soil to erosion from wind and rain. The increasing scarcity of trees also means people use precious animal dung for fuel, instead of putting it on the land to help maintain fertility. Cash crops: during the 20th century many countries were encouraged to grow cash crops food produced for export as a way of gaining foreign exchange. The concentration on a single crop such as cotton or rice resulted in widespread reduction of soil fertility. Inappropriate farming techniques such as flood irrigation (drowning fields with water) led to increasing salt content in the soils and further degradation. The increasing population is also forcing more and more people, such as the previously nomadic Rendille in Kenya, to move off the land to live in towns and cities. In many countries the increased urban population has to be supplied with scarce fuelwood from the countryside that surrounds it. Figure 4: Dust storm off the coast of Morocco

Source: NASAs Earth Observatory

Physical processes
While the influence of man is, perhaps, the overriding factor in leaving soils open to erosion and degradation, it is physical processes that are responsible for the actual erosion itself. Once the soil has been rendered infertile and its structure has been broken down, it is very susceptible to the actions of both wind (a process known as aeolian erosion) and rain. Strong winds blow over flat land stripped of vegetation, picking up the finest soil particles, transporting them in suspension and forming the huge dust clouds associated with desert landscapes. Saharan dust has been found in the Caribbean and southeast England (Figure 4), and the path of a single dust storm can be up to 4000km. Larger particles are blown by the wind in a series of short hops or bounces, dislodging other soil particles as they land in a process known as saltation. Finally, in a strong enough wind, the biggest particles roll or slide along the soil surface as surface creep (Figure 5). Rain in semi-arid and arid lands is concentrated in intense downpours which land heavily on the soil, dislodging particles and, if on a
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hillside, forcing them further down the slope. Raindrops clog up the soil, filling holes with water and dislodged particles, reducing infiltration. Sheet wash results as a very thin film of water that flows over the surface of the soil, washing away the most valuable and nutrientrich topsoil. Serious rain erosion may also occur in channels in the landscape, forming features known as rills and gullies. These eroded channels (Figure 2) can be very numerous, destroying soil fertility and making the land almost impossible to farm.

Unfortunately at the same time population was increasing at around 2.5% per year food production could not keep pace. In the area bordering the southern Sahara the carrying capacity of the land was only 0.3 people per sq km, but the population density was two. South of this, where nomadic herders share the land with settled farmers, the carrying capacity of 15 per sq km was still substantially lower than the actual population density of 20. The land has become increasingly unable to support the number of people living on it as the population has increased. Meanwhile, the governments of the Sahelian countries have also encouraged the production of cash crops such as cotton and peanuts, at the expense of food crops. This, combined with population pressure, has forced families to expand the cultivation of staple food crops into marginal lands. Fallow periods in which the land was left bare and traditionally allowed to recover fertility have been ignored. Trees have been cut down to supply fuelwood and to open up land for more crops, and the bare ground has been left exposed to erosion by wind and rain. Other problems include the increase in numbers and herds of cattle, traditionally a sign of wealth and standing in many countries of the region. These cattle congregate on the best pastures, or trample rings of desolation around the waterholes,

Case study The Sahel

The classic study of desertification comes from the Sahelian countries where the problem was first identified and whose plight brought the phenomenon to worldwide attention. The causes and effects of desertification in the Sahel are implicated in present-day disasters such as the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan. After a period of above-average rainfall in the middle of the last century, the Sahelian countries have suffered low rainfall almost every year since 1968, with periods of severe drought in the early 1970s and 1980s. In between, the production of drought-resistant foods such as sorghum and millet had been increasing by 1% per year.

September 2008 no.576 Causes of Desertification destroying the soil structure. The climate of the Sahel may also be getting drier, thereby increasing the prospect of land degradation. Figure 5: Processes of aeolian (wind) erosion

Rich countries with poor country problems?

Although desertification is often at its most severe in LEDCs, there is no doubt that many MEDCs also have serious cause for concern. It is only 70 years since large numbers of poor farmers in the American Midwest were forced from their land in what became known as the dustbowl years. In a series of events similar to more recent history in the Sahel, the need for wheat following World War One combined with a series of years of above-average rainfall, led to the cultivation of marginal land. When drought hit the weakened soil in the 1930s, huge dust storms afflicted the region and many were forced to seek refuge in the expanding cities of California. Poor farming practices were the main driving force behind desertification in the USA and these are still being used in countries such as China and Vietnam today. Monoculture planting of the same crop (e.g. coffee in Vietnam) strips the land of nutrients, while ploughing destroys the soil structure and forms channels down which rainwater is concentrated. Nowadays, most MEDCs are aware of the dangers of desertification, but that does not mean the long-term need for soil conservation is always upheld when short-term profit can be made from the land.

Suspension smallest particles carried by the wind as dust storms

Surface creep the largest particles roll along the ground in the strongest winds

Saltation larger particles transported short distances by the wind by bouncing or hopping


GeoFile Series 27 Issue 1 Fig 576_06 Mac/eps/illustrator 11 s/s dramatic rainstorms that characterised table. In some areas, the underground NELSON THORNES PUBLISHING the region washed away theArtist:from Russell Illustration soil David aquifers are being contaminated by sea

the exposed hillsides. As the farmers moved out, shepherds moved in with goats and sheep and stripped the land of its increasingly sparse vegetation. Over-grazing led to removal of plants and soil compaction, then rain splash and run-off resulted in the loss of topsoil. Meanwhile, human activity has caused the water table to drop. Large deposits of gypsum rock an absorbent strata that formed a huge underground store of water have been quarried for use in the building trade. Much of this material has been destined for the huge tourist resorts along the Spanish coast. Benidorm, for instance, has grown from its fishing village origins 40 years ago to receive four million visitors a year. The town uses huge amounts of water for its 30,000 swimming pools, its golf courses, showers and other tourist facilities, further depleting the precious water

water. The Spanish government has taken steps, both large and small-scale, to combat desertification, but this conflicts with the need for tourist cash Benidorm itself provides 1% of the countrys GDP.

Desertification an ongoing problem

While many scientists now think desertification may not be a serious problem on a global scale, there is no doubt that land degradation affects many people on a local basis. Many initiatives are now stopping the spread of desert-like conditions but, with an ever-increasing population and the threat of serious climate change, it seems likely the problem will remain for many years to come.

Case study Europes desert

Almeria, in southern Spain, is Europes only truly arid area, with an average annual rainfall of less than 300mm. Fifty years ago there were large areas of irrigated farmland growing vegetables and fruit for subsistence use, combined with terraced dry land growing cash crops such as olive and carob. Working the land was hard, however, and mass depopulation of the countryside has taken place since the mid1950s. Young people were attracted to the bright lights and easier work in the towns and cities, and the land was abandoned. The terraces that protected the land from soil erosion for centuries quickly fell into disrepair. As walls tumbled, the short,
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Focus Questions
1 Describe the global distribution of countries at risk from desertification with reference to slight, moderate, and severe risk. 2 What are the main causes of desertification? Discuss whether the causes are mainly man-made or natural in origin. 3 Compare and contrast the causes of desertification in MEDCs and LEDCs. In which type of country is the problem more severe, and why? You should refer to specific countries in your answer. 4 What effect has the concentration on the production of cash crops in LEDCs had on desertification?

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