What is desertification?

Causes, consequences and measures to avoid this lethal problem for the planet
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Desertification is a process by which fertile land in the planet’s dry regions steadily loses its productive capacity and becomes unproductive, desert land.


Desertification v. desertization: the difference is due to humans

We often use desertization and desertification as synonyms when we refer to this process of exhaustion of the land, but they are certainly not the same thing. The presence of humans in the equation is what marks the difference. In desertization, the causes of deterioration are strictly natural; but in desertification human activities are also a factor, indeed the determinant one.

Deforestation, in order to plant crops and obtain energy, bad farming practices (sewing without rotation, short-term investment horizons, working of unprotected soils during dry periods and poor fertilizer planning), irresponsible water management (over-exploitation of aquifers, inefficient irrigation, selection of species unsuitable to local conditions) and over-grazing, are some of the causes induced by humans that accelerate the impoverishment of soil. But climate change, also caused by humans, and the wide-ranging destruction it wreaks, such as drought, fire, erosion, etc., is responsible for the fast degradation and instability affecting the whole planet.

According to the United Nations, over 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil is disappearing every year. Today, two-thirds of the Earth is locked into a process of desertification. If we don’t take measures, in 2050, 1.5 million km2 of agricultural land will be lost. This is a surface area equivalent to all the arable land in India. This land is vital to maintaining biodiversity and feeding the population.

Evidence of the above is seen in how climate change is causing the Western United States to move toward the East, and how the Aral Sea, which was the world’s fourth biggest lake, is not even among the 20 largest now, leading the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to classify it as an irrecoverable ecosystem.




The international community, increasingly aware of what the desertification problem means for the whole planet, laid out urgent measures that need to be taken to prevent it in Sustainable Development Goal 15, dedicated to protecting terrestrial ecosystems. Proposals such as reforestation and natural fertilization of land to prevent evaporation of humidity, responsible planning of grazing, transformation of farming practices (level crops, species planning and rotation, establishment of plant cover after harvests, agroforestry systems, etc.), and protecting soil from water erosion by intervening in water courses and on hillsides to correct slopes and reduce run-offs (through contention dikes, infiltration systems, fencing, fascines, etc.), can halt this problem and return the soil of our planet to good health.

But it seems, for now, the actions introduced to reverse the desertification, for example by the European Union, are plagued by inefficiency. A report by the European Court of Auditors, published just a few months ago, demonstrated the vulnerability of European countries to desertification and found that European Commission measures to tackle this lacked coherence.

The reality is that the size of the problem requires decisive action by the international community. Regenerative measures to prevent desertification are too costly and do not guarantee results. Preventive actions are seen as the way forward.

Desertification affects arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions; difficult conditions to manage in themselves. Small variations could provoke extreme situations and large migrations over the coming years. The United Nations estimates that two billion people depend on resources from these dry regions of the planet.