Is it possible to reverse the process of desertification?


A third of the planet’s land is threatened by desertification. The percentage of drylands in European countries in the Mediterranean area is 33.8%, however, 70% of the world’s drylands are concentrated in Africa and Asia. In Spain, 74% of the territory is susceptible to desertification because it is located in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. Moreover, this problem will surely be aggravated by the impact of climate change.

Desertification is one of the main environmental problems affecting the planet: it decreases the productivity of agriculture and livestock, as well as the value of natural resources, and has serious socio-economic consequences.


What is desertification?

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification defines it as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, such as climatic variations and human activities. This last point, human action, is essential to differentiate desertification from desertification, which is sometimes confused.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the above definition to be taken into account: that the process of desertification occurs in certain areas and that it is defined by the action of the climate (droughts, intense rains, aridity, etc.) , human beings (fires, deforestation, certain agricultural practices, etc.) and the geomorphological characteristics of the terrain (steep slopes, soft lithologies, soil erodibility, etc.).

6 main desertification scenarios have been identified: rainfed crops affected by erosion, abandoned agricultural land, poorly planned irrigated crops, overgrazed land, degraded wasteland and maquis, poorly managed forests.

Can desertification be reversed?

In a simplistic sense, one can understand that if one acts on these factors, soil degradation can be reversed. However, desertification is a complex and multifactorial process, and there is no recipe for returning soil to its original state once it becomes too arid. Similarly, rehabilitation interventions in desertified areas are economically costly and offer limited results.

The soil reclamation process is slow, it takes hundreds of years to salvage one centimeter of soil. Therefore, efforts should be made to prevent and mitigate its degradation before the process reaches an irreversible limit. The key is to identify solutions appropriate to local conditions, implement them in a coordinated way between the parties involved and follow up to assess their effect.

everyone’s responsibility

In this fight against desertification, which is closely linked to the mitigation and adaptation to climate change, the preservation of biodiversity and the maintenance of soil productivity, we all play an important role and must be involved of the solution.

Within the framework of the European Green Deal, there is a thematic strategy for soil protection in the European Union in order, among other objectives, to tackle the growing threat of desertification and to achieve neutrality in terms of land degradation. land by 2030.

Similarly, actions can be implemented through national strategies to combat desertification which activate policies to combat the growing threat posed by this process, through aid for rural development framed in the second pillar of the common agrarian policy and establishing correct land uses which take account, among other things, of their suitability for the different activities.

It is necessary to coordinate the measures to be implemented with sectoral and intersectoral policies and instruments, as well as to promote the transfer of knowledge to achieve greater and better dissemination of the actions carried out.

The agricultural and livestock collective can bet on agroecology and show an active commitment. Specifically, farms are recommended to implement sustainable practices that minimize soil compaction, erosion, salinization and sodification, contamination of aquifers, and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, among others.

Likewise, in this area, the following agricultural production techniques should be highlighted: organic production, conservation agriculture and regenerative agriculture, which are essential for the protection of agricultural soils.

Finally, we, the citizens, are a key element in this fight, supporting the products obtained through sustainable practices and following established guidelines.

Soil restoration process

Concerning actions to restore lands that have become too arid, it should be noted:

  • Implement measures to stop erosion. They can be linear, with forest dykes in riverbeds, ravines and gullies or through the use of windbreaks on agricultural land (linear plantations of trees); or surface, with biological measures (reforestation, organic fertilization, plant cover, crop rotation and association, etc.) and physical measures (terraces or terraces, level cultivation, soil conservation work, etc.).
  • Make rational use of water and avoid its contamination.
  • Preserve the natural vegetation and biodiversity present in the agroecosystem, key to maintaining ecosystem services that increase its resilience.

Desertification involves an irreversible decrease on a human time scale in the productivity levels of terrestrial ecosystems. Progress must be made towards neutrality in land degradation, by joining efforts of prevention and mitigation.

Character font: María Gloria Sáenz Romo / Vicente Santiago Marco Mancebón / THE CONVERSATION

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