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Desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid dry areas caused by climatic changes and human activities. It is accompanied by a reduction in the natural potential of the land and a depletion in surface and ground-water resources. Desertification not only occurs in natural deserts, but can also take place on land which is prone to desertification processes.

As per the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India published by the Space Application Centre in 2007, about 32.07 % of the land is undergoing various forms of degradation and 25% of the geographical area is affected by desertification.

Degradation of these lands has severe implications for the livelihood and food security of millions. Figure below from the  National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, shows the various dryland regions of India.

Dryland regions of India. Image source: National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, Nagpur

Desertification is caused by a number of factors including climatic variations and human activities. Human activities causing desertification are

  • Expansion of agriculture- over cultivation of soils, or exposure to erosion by wind or water; reduction in the fallow period of soil, and lack of organic or mineral fertilizers;
  • Overgrazing – often selectively – of shrubs, herbs and grasses;
  • Overexploitation of forest resources;
  • Deforestation;
  • Uncontrolled use of fire for regenerating pasture, for hunting, agricultural clearing, or for settling;
  • Poor irrigation practices-irrigation of soils prone to salinisation, alkalinisation or even water logging.

By exhausting the vitality of  ecosystems, desertification  reduces agricultural yields affecting the food security of  people. Water scarcity is another by product of desertification. Desertification has a direct impact on river flow rates and the level of groundwater tables. Figure below shows areas of physical and economic water scarcity around the world.

Areas of water scarcity. Image source: International Water Management Institute

Over-exploitation of natural resources in the name of ‘development’ aggravates desertification leading to destruction of plant and animal habitats. Fragile ecosystems are destroyed and biodiversity is affected.

There are numerous programs in India aimed a combating desertification. National Action Program to combat Desertificationis one such. However, it lacks in implementation. Careful water use has not been a priority in recent decades. There is a desperate need for individuals and policy makers to work together to address urgent land misuse and water issues.

June 17th is observed by the United Nations as the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

It is vital for humanity to follow sustainable land use, and sustainable livelihoods to renew and retain our fragile ecosystems.