It’s no secret that the human population has undergone an explosion in the last few centuries, leading to the overexploitation of natural resources on a global scale. With climate change thrown in the mix, several parts of the world are undergoing large-scale desertification or persistent deterioration of fertile lands to the point of barrenness.
Desertification is not a new phenomenon, it’s been happening throughout our planet’s history. So, why worry now?
The answer lies in the rate of increase in land degradation, which is almost 30-35 times what it has been in the past. The rapid shrinking of productive land impacts everyone, but the poor and those who rely on agriculture in vulnerable regions are being hit the hardest.
It’s not too late to bring desertification back in check. There are actionable steps that offer us a realistic chance at slowing down desertification and even reclaiming deteriorated lands.
But to solve this challenge, we first need to understand what desertification is, where it occurs, and what causes it.
The Journey from a Fertile Land to a Desert
According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, 1994, desertification is land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. A land labeled as degraded implies that it’s suffered a significant decline or lost its economic and biological productivity.
Desertification occurs when human activities such as intensive farming, mining, and vegetation clearing for various reasons cause degradation beyond the ecosystem’s restorative capacity. The places most prone to becoming deserts are drylands or places with low rainfall.
Drylands make up almost 41% of our planet’s ice-free terrestrial surface, many of which are located in Africa, Asia, and Australia. Climate change and rising temperatures make matters worse, impacting rainfall patterns and triggering frequent droughts. These factors strip away the nutrient-rich topsoil, deplete water reserves, and make the region vulnerable to desertification.
Why Desertification is a Cause for Concern
The drylands are home to an estimated 2 billion people, many who farm the lands for subsistence, often using unsustainable methods. Once barren, a land loses its capacity to grow plants and retain water. In other words, it can no longer provide food or clean groundwater to support the people and livestock dependent on it. All that’s left is sand and dust.
Poverty, malnutrition, respiratory problems, and biodiversity loss are common repercussions of desertification. Shifting habitats, no matter how hard, seems like the only way out. At its current pace, an estimated 50 million people could be displaced within the next ten years due to desertification.
Top Causes of Desertification
There isn’t just one single cause of desertification. It’s the interactions between various factors that cause land degradation, soil erosion, and loss of vegetation severe enough for desertification. Let’s take a look at what these factors are.
Climate variability impacts the rainfall patterns, causing drylands to undergo intense drought-like conditions more frequently and for longer than ever before. These regions are already fragile, and a prolonged dry spell can significantly damage their productivity and vegetation.
With a low vegetation cover, the dry, bare soil becomes vulnerable to erosion and gullying. In the Guidimakha region in Mauritania, Africa, the rainfall levels used to hover around 1600mm less than three decades ago, they have now dropped sharply to 400mm. And as of winter 2023, The Horn of Africa is facing its 5th consecutive failed rainy season, raising serious concerns about food and water security in the area.
Overgrazing by sheep and goats has been the leading cause of widespread desertification in the Mongolian Steppe. And this holds for many drylands where herding livestock is a major source of livelihood.
The animals need to eat and are usually left to graze on the lands, unrestricted. They eat the grass and damage the topsoil with their hooves, stripping the land of vegetation and nutrients.
Unsustainable Farming and Poor Irrigation Techniques
Farming methods involving harsh chemicals, overcultivation, heavy tilling, and slash-and-burn methods are often used to maximize yields in dry regions. Over time, these methods scrape away fertility, turning fertile lands into stunted landscapes.
These agricultural practices are often grouped together with poor irrigation techniques, which make the soil too salty to support vegetation overtime.
Wood harvesting, poor farming techniques, and clearing of forestland to build homes have been significant factors in the desertification of the Sahel region in Africa. A good tree cover is essential to maintain a healthy balance of nutrients in the soil and protect it from getting eroded or washed away.
Trees also help mitigate the effects of climate change by soaking up large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and they play a huge role in generating rainfall through atmospheric moisture recycling. Deforestation can disrupt this cycle and cause less precipitation and drier conditions - increasing the risk of desertification.
Our planet has lost 420 million hectares of forest in the last three decades. If we can reforest even 1% of these deserts, the resulting carbon capture can mitigate the effects of climate change substantially.
This is where we step in.
Undesert’s Role in Fighting Desertification
Industry is responsible for creating 359 billion cubic liters of wastewater per year. That’s enough to fill 144 million Olympic-sized pools - and historically, there hasn’t been a great way to purify and reuse that water. Until now.
Imagine if, instead of going to waste, this water was transformed into ultra-pure water and used to reforest desertified lands. This is the mission that drives us.
Staying true to our name, Undesert’s goal is to reforest desertified lands through wastewater purification, sustainable water management, reforestation, and carbon capture.
Our multi-patented SWAP (Salty Wastewater Purification) technology helps us transform heavily contaminated wastewater into ultra-pure water (5 PPM) and dry salt. This purified water will be channeled towards sustainable uses, such as reforesting desertified regions and irrigating agricultural lands.
Our technology has already been tested with promising results. Just seven months after starting this project, our land has yielded pine trees growing at 7 to 10% per month and tripling their content of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Desertification is already impacting all life on Earth. We should consider ourselves as stewards of our planet's resources for the sake of future generations. By understanding what causes this phenomenon, its consequences, and new ways to address it, we can take meaningful steps toward addressing this challenge.
Citations & Resources:
- Background - Desertification Day | United Nations
- Land Desertification
- What are drylands? | Dryland Forestry | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- Climate change is causing an increase in desertificaton | Africanews
- Mongolian Steppe munched into desert by goats and sheep
- Desertification in Africa: Causes, Effects and Solutions | Earth.Org
- Global Forest Resource Assessment 2020