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Essay on Land Restoration, Desertification, and Drought Resilience

Essay on Land Restoration, Desertification, and Drought Resilience is one of the important essay topics as Land Restoration, Desertification, and Drought Resilience is theme of World Environment Day 2024 . Lets see Essay on Land Restoration, Desertification, and Drought Resilience.

Essay on Land Restoration, Desertification, and Drought Resilience

In an era marked by environmental degradation and climate change , the imperative to restore and conserve land, combat desertification, and enhance drought resilience has never been more pressing. Land restoration, the process of reversing the degradation of soils and ecosystems, holds the key to sustaining livelihoods, preserving biodiversity, and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Coupled with efforts to combat desertification and build resilience to drought, it forms a crucial pillar of global environmental sustainability initiatives.

Land Restoration:

Land restoration involves a range of practices aimed at rehabilitating degraded landscapes, revitalizing ecosystems, and improving soil health. Afforestation and reforestation efforts play a vital role in restoring degraded lands by enhancing carbon sequestration, preventing soil erosion, and providing habitats for diverse flora and fauna. Additionally, sustainable land management practices such as agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and watershed management promote soil conservation, water retention, and biodiversity conservation.

Furthermore, restoring degraded ecosystems through measures like wetland restoration, grassland rehabilitation, and mangrove reforestation not only enhances ecosystem services but also supports local communities' resilience to climate-related hazards such as floods and storms. By restoring the functionality of ecosystems, land restoration contributes to the conservation of biodiversity , the provision of clean water, and the mitigation of climate change impacts.

Desertification:

Desertification, the process by which fertile land becomes increasingly arid and degraded, poses significant challenges to human well-being, biodiversity, and ecosystem stability. It is often exacerbated by unsustainable land use practices, deforestation , overgrazing, and climate variability. Addressing desertification requires integrated approaches that combine sustainable land management, reforestation, soil conservation, and community engagement.

Efforts to combat desertification include the establishment of protected areas, the promotion of sustainable land management practices, and the implementation of reforestation and afforestation initiatives in arid and semi-arid regions. Sustainable land management practices such as agroforestry, terracing, and water harvesting help restore soil fertility, prevent erosion, and enhance water availability , thereby reversing the process of desertification.

Moreover, empowering local communities through capacity building, land tenure reforms, and participatory decision-making processes is essential for ensuring the sustainability of desertification mitigation efforts. By addressing the root causes of desertification and promoting ecosystem resilience, we can safeguard livelihoods, biodiversity, and ecosystem services in vulnerable dryland areas.

Drought Resilience:

Drought, a recurring natural phenomenon characterized by prolonged periods of low precipitation, poses significant challenges to agriculture, water security , and food production. Building resilience to drought involves a combination of mitigation and adaptation measures that enhance water efficiency, promote sustainable land management, and improve community resilience.

Investing in water-saving technologies such as drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, and soil moisture conservation helps improve water use efficiency and mitigate the impacts of drought on agricultural productivity. Additionally, promoting drought-resistant crop varieties, implementing agroforestry practices, and restoring degraded watersheds contribute to enhancing ecosystem resilience and reducing vulnerability to drought.

Furthermore, enhancing early warning systems, strengthening drought preparedness and response mechanisms, and providing social safety nets for vulnerable communities are essential components of drought resilience-building efforts. By adopting a holistic approach that integrates climate-smart agriculture, sustainable land management, and community-based adaptation strategies, we can enhance resilience to drought and ensure the well-being of communities in drought-prone regions.

Conclusion:

Land restoration, desertification mitigation, and drought resilience-building are integral components of global efforts to address environmental degradation, combat climate change, and promote sustainable development. By restoring degraded lands, combating desertification, and building resilience to drought, we can protect ecosystems, support livelihoods, and safeguard the well-being of present and future generations. It is imperative that governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector collaborate to implement integrated solutions that promote land restoration, prevent desertification, and enhance drought resilience, thereby contributing to a more sustainable and resilient future for all.

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  • Introduction

The global reach of desertification

Causes and consequences of desertification, irrigated croplands.

  • Rain-fed croplands
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desertification

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  • UC Berkeley - Ecohydrology and Water and Society Lab - Desertification
  • Academia.edu - Desertification: Description, Causes and Impacts
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desertification

desertification , the process by which natural or human causes reduce the biological productivity of drylands (arid and semiarid lands). Declines in productivity may be the result of climate change , deforestation , overgrazing, poverty , political instability, unsustainable irrigation practices, or combinations of these factors. The concept does not refer to the physical expansion of existing deserts but rather to the various processes that threaten all dryland ecosystems , including deserts as well as grasslands and scrublands .

drought and desertification essay

Slightly less than half of Earth’s ice-free land surface—approximately 52 million square km (about 20 million square miles)—is drylands, and these drylands cover some of the world’s poorest countries. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) notes that desertification has affected 36 million square km (14 million square miles) of land and is a major international concern. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification , the lives of 250 million people are affected by desertification, and as many as 135 million people may be displaced by desertification by 2045, making it one of the most severe environmental challenges facing humanity.

Africa is the continent most affected by desertification, and one of the most obvious natural borders on the landmass is the southern edge of the Sahara desert. The countries that lie on the edge of the Sahara are among the poorest in the world, and they are subject to periodic droughts that devastate their peoples. African drylands (which include the Sahara, the Kalahari , and the grasslands of East Africa) span 20 million square km (about 7.7 million square miles), some 65 percent of the continent. One-third of Africa’s drylands are largely uninhabited arid deserts, while the remaining two-thirds support two-thirds of the continent’s burgeoning human population. As Africa’s population increases, the productivity of the land supporting this population declines. Some one-fifth of the irrigated cropland, three-fifths of the rain-fed cropland, and three-fourths of the rangeland have been at least moderately harmed by desertification.

drought and desertification essay

In general, desertification is caused by variations in climate and by unsustainable land-management practices in dryland environments . By their very nature, arid and semiarid ecosystems are characterized by sparse or variable rainfall. Thus, climatic changes such as those that result in extended droughts can rapidly reduce the biological productivity of those ecosystems. Such changes may be temporary, lasting only a season, or they may persist over many years and decades. On the other hand, plants and animals are quick to take advantage of wetter periods, and productivity can rapidly increase during these times.

Chutes d'Ekom - a waterfall on the Nkam river in the rainforest near Melong, in the western highlands of Cameroon in Africa.

Since dryland environments are used for a variety of human purposes (such as agriculture , animal grazing, and fuelwood collection), the various activities undertaken in them can exacerbate the problem of desertification and bring about lasting changes to dryland ecosystems. In 1977, at the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) in Nairobi , Kenya , representatives and delegates first contemplated the worldwide effects of desertification. The conference explored the causes and contributing factors and also possible local and regional solutions to the phenomenon. In addition, the delegates considered the varied consequences of desertification, such as crop failures or decreased yields in rain-fed farmland, the loss of perennial plant cover and thus loss of forage for livestock , reduced woody biomass and thus scarcity of fuelwood and building materials, a decrease in potable water stocks from reductions in surface water and groundwater flow, increased sand dune intrusion onto croplands and settlements, increased flooding due to rising sedimentation in rivers and lakes , and amplified air and water pollution from dust and sedimentation.

Four areas affected by desertification

To better understand how climatic changes and human activities contribute to the process of desertification, the consequences listed above can be grouped into four broad areas:

  • Irrigated croplands, whose soils are often degraded by the accumulation of salts .
  • Rain -fed croplands, which experience unreliable rainfall and wind-driven soil erosion .
  • Grazing lands, which are harmed by overgrazing, soil compaction , and erosion.
  • Dry woodlands, which are plagued by the overconsumption of fuelwood.

drought and desertification essay

Nearly 2,750,000 square km (about 1,062,000 square miles) of croplands are irrigated. Over 60 percent of these irrigated areas occur in drylands. Certainly, some dryland areas have been irrigated for millennia, but other areas are more fragile. Of the irrigated dryland, 30 percent (an area roughly the size of Japan) is moderately to severely degraded, and this percentage is increasing.

drought and desertification essay

The main cause of declining biological productivity in irrigated croplands is the accumulation of salts in the soil. There is an important difference between rainwater and the water used for dryland irrigation . Rainwater results from the condensation of water evaporated by sunlight . Essentially, rainwater is distilled seawater or lake water. In contrast, water used for irrigation is the result of runoff from precipitation . Runoff percolates through the soil, dissolving and collecting much of the salts it encounters, before finding its way into rivers or aquifers . When used to irrigate crops, runoff evaporates and leaves behind much of the salts that it collected. Irrigated crops need an average of 80 cm (about 30 inches) of water annually. These salts can build up in the soil unless additional water is used to flush them out. This process can rapidly transform productive land into relatively barren salt flats scattered with halophytes (plants adapted to high levels of salt in the soil).

Most salt-degraded cropland occurs in Asia and southwestern North America , which account for 75 and 15 percent of the worldwide total, respectively. In Asia, Iraq has lost over 70 percent of its irrigated land to salt accumulation. In Russia, much of the irrigated land located where the Volga River runs into the Caspian Sea may last only until the middle of the 21st century before the buildup of salts makes it virtually unusable. Such losses are not restricted to developing countries. In the United States , salt accumulation has lowered crop yields across more than 50,000 square km (19,000 square miles), an area that is about a quarter of the country’s irrigated land.

Essay on Drought for Students and Children

500+ words essay on drought.

Drought is a dangerous condition which decreases the quality of life. It is termed as a natural disaster with harmful effects. A drought usually occurs when a region faces a shortage of water. This is mainly due to lesser rainfalls. In addition, droughts have proven to be fatal for mankind and wildlife as well.

Essay on Drought

Moreover, drought is the most dangerous for a farmer. As they do not have an ample supply of water, their crops dry out. This becomes a reason for worry as it is their sole income. Furthermore, drought also leads to various other problems for the environment and mankind.

Causes of Drought

Drought is caused due to various reasons. One of the main reasons is deforestation . When there will be no trees, the water on land will evaporate at a faster rate. Similarly, it lessens the soil capacity to hold water resulting in evaporation. Moreover, lesser trees also mean lesser rainfall which eventually leads to drought.

Furthermore, as the climate is changing, the water bodies are drying up. This results in a lower flow of surface water. Therefore, when the rivers and lakes will dry out, how will the people get water? In addition, global warming is a major cause of this. The greenhouse gas emitted causes the earth’s temperature to rise. Thus, it results in higher evaporation rates.

Subsequently, excessive irrigation is also a great cause of droughts. When we use water irresponsibly, the surface water dries up. As it does not get ample time to replenish, it causes drought.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

Impact of Drought

Drought is a serious disaster which impacts the whole of mankind, wildlife, and vegetation greatly. Moreover, a region which experiences drought requires a lot of time to recover from the disaster. It is a severe condition which interferes with the quality and functioning of life.

Most importantly, the agriculture sector suffers the most at the hands of drought. For instance, farmers face a loss of crop production, livestock production. Moreover, they experience plant disease and wind erosion. Similarly, they also have to face heavy financial losses. Their financial condition worsens and they end up in debt. This also leads to higher rates of depression and suicides.

drought and desertification essay

Furthermore, wildlife also suffers. They do not get sources of water to drink from. In addition, when forest fires happen due to droughts, they also lose their habitats and life. Just like any natural disaster , droughts also result in inflation of prices. The basic products become expensive. The poor people do not get access to essential foods due to high rates. Subsequently, droughts also degrade the quality of the soil. This result in poor or no yielding of crops.

In short, drought is definitely one of the most catastrophic natural disasters. It causes loss of life, vegetation and gives rise to other deadly problems like famine. The citizens and government must join hands to prevent droughts to save thousands of lives. This joint effort can help save the world from such a catastrophe.

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drought and desertification essay

Seven ways to restore land, halt desertification and combat drought

Land sustains life on Earth. Natural spaces such as forests, farmlands, savannahs, peatlands and mountains, provide humanity with the food, water and raw materials it needs to survive. 

Yet, more than 2 billion hectares of the world’s land is degraded, affecting more than 3 billion people . Vital ecosystems and countless species are under threat. In the face of more severe and prolonged droughts , sandstorms and rising temperatures , it is crucial to find ways to stop dry land from becoming desert, fresh water sources from evaporating and fertile soil from turning to dust. 

While that might sound like an insurmountable task, it is not, say experts. On 5 June, the planet will celebrate World Environment Day 2024 , which will cast a spotlight on how everyone can help end land degradation and restore blighted landscapes. 

“Governments and businesses have a leading role to play in reversing the damage humanity has done to the Earth,” says Bruno Pozzi, the Deputy Director of the Ecosystems Division of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “But everyday people also have a vital role to play in restoration, which is crucial to our future as a species.” 

Here are seven ways to get involved in ecosystem restoration on World Environment Day as outlined in the practical guide We Are #Generation Restoration .

  1. Make agriculture sustainable  

A woman planting crops

Globally, at least 2 billion people , particularly from rural and poorer areas, depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, our current food systems are unsustainable and a prime driver of land degradation. There is a lot we can do to fix this. Governments and the finance sector can promote regenerative agriculture to increase food production while preserving ecosystems.  

Right now, agricultural producers receive US$540 billion a year in financial support from countries. Some 87 per cent of these subsidies either distort prices or harm nature and human health. With that in mind, governments could redirect agricultural subsidies towards sustainable practices and small-scale farmers.  

Agricultural businesses can develop climate-resilient crops, harness Indigenous knowledge to develop sustainable farming methods and better manage the use of pesticides and fertilizers to avoid harming soil health. Consumers can embrace regional, seasonal and plant-rich diets, and include more soil-friendly food in meals, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas. 

2. Save the soil  

A plant in soil

Soil is more than just the dirt under our feet. It is the planet’s most biodiverse habitat. Almost 60 per cent of all species live in soil and 95 per cent of the food we eat is produced from it. Healthy soil acts as a carbon sink, locking in greenhouse gases that would otherwise enter the atmosphere, playing a vital role in climate mitigation.  

To keep soil healthy and productive, governments and the finance sector can support organic and soil-friendly farming. Agricultural businesses can practise zero-tillage , a technique that involves cultivating crops without disturbing the soil through tillage to maintain organic soil cover. Compost and organic materials could be added to soil to improve its fertility. Irrigation techniques, such as drip irrigation or mulching, could be used to help maintain soil moisture levels and prevent drought stress. Individuals could make compost from leftover scraps of fruit and vegetables for use in their gardens and balcony plant pots.  

3. Protect the pollinators  

A bee in a flower

Three out of four crops producing fruit and seeds depend on pollinators. Bees are the most prolific pollinators but they get a lot of help from bats, insects, butterflies, birds and beetles. In fact, without bats, we can say goodbye to bananas, avocados and mangoes. Despite their importance, all pollinators are in serious decline, bees especially.  

To protect them, people need to reduce air pollution, minimize the adverse impact of pesticides and fertilizers, and conserve the meadows, forests and wetlands where pollinators thrive. Authorities and individuals could mow fewer green spaces in cities and introduce more pollinator-friendly ponds to allow nature to return. Planting a diverse variety of native flowers in city and home gardens will also attract birds, butterflies and bees. 

4. Restore freshwater ecosystems  

A man in a dugout canoe

Freshwater ecosystems sustain the water cycles that keep land fertile. They supply food and water to billions of people, protect us from droughts and floods, and provide a habitat for countless plants and animals. Yet they are disappearing at an alarming rate due to pollution, climate change, overfishing and over-extraction. 

People can stop this by improving water quality, identifying sources of pollution and monitoring the health of freshwater ecosystems. Countries can join the Freshwater Challenge to accelerate the restoration of degraded rivers and wetlands by 2030. Invasive species could be removed from degraded freshwater habitats and native vegetation replanted. Cities could champion wastewater innovation that addresses sewage management, stormwater runoff and urban flooding.   

5. Renew coastal and marine areas  

Fish swimming in shallow water

Oceans and seas provide humanity with oxygen, food and water, while mitigating climate change and helping communities adapt to extreme weather. More than 3 billion people , primarily in developing nations, rely on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. 

To secure this precious asset for generations to come, governments can accelerate implementation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework . Countries can restore blue ecosystems – including mangroves, salt marshes, kelp forests and coral reefs – while enforcing strict regulations on pollution, excess nutrients, agricultural runoff, industrial discharge and plastic waste to prevent them leaching into coastal areas. 

Countries could adopt a life-cycle approach to redesign plastic products to ensure they can be reused, repurposed, repaired, recycled – and ultimately kept out of the ocean. Businesses can invest in recovering nutrients from wastewater and livestock waste to use as fertilizers. 

6. Bring nature back to cities  

A river meanders through a city

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, it is projected that two in three people will live in an urban centre. Cities consume 75 per cent of the planet’s resources, produce more than half its global waste and generate at least 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. As cities grow, they transform the natural world around them, potentially leading to droughts and land degradation. 

But cities do not need to be concrete jungles. Urban forests can improve air quality, provide more shade and reduce the need for mechanical cooling. Preserving cities’ canals, ponds and other water bodies can alleviate heatwaves and increase biodiversity. Installing more roof and vertical gardens in our buildings can provide habitats for birds, insects and plants.  

7. Generate financing for restoration  

People standing in front of a mountain in traditional dress

Investments in nature-based solutions need to more than double to US$542 billion by 2030 to meet the world’s climate, biodiversity and ecosystem restoration goals.  

To close the existing finance gap, governments could invest in early warning systems to prevent the worst impacts of drought, as well as fund land restoration activities and nature-based solutions. The private sector could integrate ecosystem restoration into their business models, implement efficient waste management practices and invest in social enterprises focused on sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism and green technology. 

Individuals can move their bank accounts to finance institutes that invest in sustainable enterprises, donate to restoration or crowd-fund for innovations that can help save the planet.  

World Environment Day  on 5 June is the biggest international day for the environment. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and held annually since 1973, the event has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people from across the world engaging to protect the planet. World Environment Day in 2024 focuses on land restoration, desertification and drought resilience.  

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030    

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and partners covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. A global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. 

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drought and desertification essay

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Desertification, land degradation and drought

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drought and desertification essay

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Publications.

Paragraph 33 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development focuses on the linkage between sustainable management of the planet’s natural resources and social and economic development as well as on “strengthen cooperation on desertification, dust storms, land degradation and drought and promote resilience and disaster risk reduction” .

Sustainable Development Goal 15 of the 2030 Agenda aims to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss” .

The economic and social significance of a good land management, including soil and its contribution to economic growth and social progress is recognized in paragraph 205 of the Future We Want. In this context, Member States express their concern on the challenges posed to sustainable development by desertification, land degradation and drought, especially for Africa, LDCs and LLDCs. At the same time, Member States highlight the need to take action at national, regional and international level to reverse land degradation, catalyse financial resources, from both private and public donors and implement both the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and its 10- Year Strategic Plan and Framework (2008-2018).

Furthermore, in paragraphs 207 and 208 of the Future We Want, Member States encourage and recognize the importance of partnerships and initiatives for the safeguarding of land resources, further development and implementation of scientifically based, sound and socially inclusive methods and indicators for monitoring and assessing the extent of desertification, land degradation and drought. The relevance of efforts underway to promote scientific research and strengthen the scientific base of activities to address desertification and drought under the UNCCD is also addressed.

Combating desertification and drought were discussed by the Commission on Sustainable Development in several sessions. In the framework of the Commission's multi-year work programme, CSD 16-17 focused, respectively in 2008 and 2009, on desertification and drought along with the interrelated issues of Land, Agriculture, Rural development and Africa.

In accordance with its multi-year programme of work, CSD-8 in 2000 reviewed integrated planning and management of land resources as its sectoral theme. In its decision 8/3 on integrated planning and management of land resources, the Commission on Sustainable Development noted the importance of addressing sustainable development through a holistic approach, such as ecosystem management, in order to meet the priority challenges of desertification and drought, sustainable mountain development, prevention and mitigation of land degradation, coastal zones, deforestation, climate change, rural and urban land use, urban growth and conservation of biological diversity.

The sectoral cluster of land, desertification, forests and biodiversity, as well as mountains (chapters 10-13 and 15 of Agenda 21) were considered by CSD-3 in 1995 and again at the five-year review in 1997.

The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) called upon the United Nations General Assembly to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INCD) to prepare, by June 1994, an international convention to combat desertification in those countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa. The Convention was adopted in Paris on 17 June 1994 and opened for signature there on 14-15 October 1994. It entered into force on 26 December 1996.

Deserts are among the "fragile ecosystems" addressed by Agenda 21, and "combating desertification and drought" is the subject of Chapter 12. Desertification includes land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities. Desertification affects as much as one-sixth of the world's population, seventy percent of all drylands, and one-quarter of the total land area of the world. It results in widespread poverty as well as in the degradation of billion hectares of rangeland and cropland.

Integrated planning and management of land resources is the subject of chapter 10 of Agenda 21, which deals with the cross-sectoral aspects of decision-making for the sustainable use and development of natural resources, including the soils, minerals, water and biota that land comprises. This broad integrative view of land resources, which are essential for life-support systems and the productive capacity of the environment, is the basis of Agenda 21's and the Commission on Sustainable Development's consideration of land issues.

Expanding human requirements and economic activities are placing ever increasing pressures on land resources, creating competition and conflicts and resulting in suboptimal use of resources. By examining all uses of land in an integrated manner, it makes it possible to minimize conflicts, to make the most efficient trade-offs and to link social and economic development with environmental protection and enhancement, thus helping to achieve the objectives of sustainable development. (Agenda 21, para 10.1) The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is the task manager for chapter 10 of Agenda 21.

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Title Type Date
Secretary-General Reports 25-Jul-2018
Other documents 23-Mar-2018
Programme 23-Mar-2018
Resolutions and decisions 23-Dec-2015
Resolutions and decisions 16-Dec-2015
Resolutions and decisions 14-Dec-2015
Secretary-General Reports 31-Jul-2015
Outcome Documents 19-Jul-2014
Other documents 17-Jul-2014
Other documents 14-Jul-2014
20-May-2014
Other documents 20-May-2014
Other documents 20-May-2014
Other documents 19-May-2014
Other documents 19-May-2014
Title Category
Desertification, drought and land degredation 24-May-2013
Desertification, drought and land degredation 23-May-2013
Desertification, drought and land degredation 23-May-2013
Desertification, drought and land degredation 23-May-2013
Desertification, drought and land degredation 23-May-2013
Desertification, drought and land degredation 23-May-2013
Desertification, drought and land degredation 23-May-2013
Desertification, drought and land degredation 23-May-2013
Desertification, drought and land degredation 22-May-2013
Statements 17-Jun-2010
13-May-2009
Desertification 26-Feb-2009
Desertification 26-Feb-2009
Desertification 26-Feb-2009
Desertification 26-Feb-2009
  • January 2015 SDG 15 - Desertification SDG 15 aims at protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. Target 15.3 in particular reads to achieve "by 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world".
  • January 2012 Future We Want (Para 205-209) The economic and social significance of a good land management, including soil and its contribution to economic growth and social progress is also recognized in paragraph 205 of the Future We Want. In this context, Member States express their concern on the challenges posed to sustainable development by desertification, land degradation and drought, especially for Africa, LDCs and LLDCs. At the same time, Member States highlight the need to take action at national, regional and international level to reverse land degradation, catalyze financial resources, from both private and public donors and implement both the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and its 10- Year Strategic Plan and Framework (2008-2018). Furthermore, in paragraphs 207 and 208 of the Future We Want, Member States encourage and recognize the importance of partnerships and initiatives for the safeguarding of land resources, further development and implementation of scientifically based, sound and socially inclusive methods and indicators for monitoring and assessing the extent of desertification, land degradation and drought. The relevance of efforts underway to promote scientific research and strengthen the scientific base of activities to address desertification and drought under the UNCCD is also taken into account by paragraph 208.
  • January 2010 UN Decade on Desertification Launched by the General Assembly with the adoption of Resolution A/RES/64/201, the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification was designed to address the Parties'concern about the worsening of the situation of desertification and its negative impact on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The Decade started in January 2010 and will end in December 2020 with the aim of promoting action ensuring the protection of dry-lands.
  • January 2008 CSD-16 (Chap.2 C,D,E) CSD-16 focused on the thematic cluster of agriculture, rural development, land, drought, desertification and Africa.
  • January 2006 Int. Year of Deserts and Desertification The International Year of Deserts and Desertification was launched to highlight the threat represented by the advancing of deserts and the loss it may cause to biodiversity. Through this International Year, the UN aimed at raising public awareness on this issue and at reversing the trend of desertification, setting the world on a safer and more sustainable path of development.
  • January 2000 CSD-8 (Chap. 4) As decided at UNGASS, the economic, sectoral and cross-sectoral themes under consideration for CSD-8 were sustainable agriculture and land management, integrating planning and management of land resources and financial resources, trade and investment and economic growth.CSD-6 to CSD-9 annually gathered at the UN Headquarters for spring meetings. Discussions at each session opened with multi-stakeholder dialogues, in which major groups were invited to make opening statements on selected themes followed by a dialogue with government representatives.
  • January 1996 UNCCD The only legally binding international agreement connecting environment and development to sustainable land management, UNCCD addresses the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, known as the drylands, where some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and peoples can be found. In 2007 the 10-Year Strategy of the UNCCD (2008-2018) was adopted and on that occasion, parties to the Convention further specified their goals: "to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought in affected areas in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability". The Convention was adopted in Paris on 17 June 1994 and entered into force on 26 December 1996, 90 days after the 50th ratification was received. 194 countries and the European Union are Parties as at April 2015.
  • January 1992 Agenda 21 (Chap. 10 and 12) Integrated planning and management of land resources is the subject of chapter 10 of Agenda 21, which deals with the cross-sectoral aspects of decision-making for the sustainable use and development of natural resources, including the soils, minerals and water that land comprises. Included in the sections devoted to the management of fragile ecosystems, chapter 12 has focused on combating desertification and droughts. The priority to keep in mind while combating desertification is identified by Chap 12.3 in the need to implement "preventive measures for lands that are not yet degraded, or which are only slightly degraded. However, the severely degraded areas should not be neglected. In combating desertification and drought, the participation of local communities, rural organizations, national Governments, non-governmental organizations and international and regional organizations is essential".

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United for Land. Our Legacy. Our Future.

Desertification, land degradation, and drought are among the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, with up to 40% of all land area worldwide already considered degraded.

Healthy land not only provides us with almost 95% of our food but so much more: it clothes and shelters us, provides jobs and livelihoods, and protects us from the worsening droughts, floods and wildfires.

At the same time, growing populations coupled with unsustainable production and consumption patterns fuel demand for natural resources, putting excessive pressure on land to the point of degradation. Desertification and drought are driving forced migration, putting tens of millions of people each year at risk of displacement.

Of the world’s 8 billion inhabitants, over one billion of young people under the age of 25 years live in developing countries, particularly in regions directly dependent on land and natural resources for sustenance. Creating job prospects for rural populations is a viable solution that gives young people access to eco-entrepreneurship opportunities and at the same time to scale up best practices.

This year, the theme of the Desertification and Drought Day “United for Land. Our Legacy. Our Future” spotlights the future of land stewardship — our most precious resource to ensure the stability and prosperity of billions of people around the world.

Soil cracked by drought

Download the digital materials

Learn more about the Day and access the campaign materials in several languages: social media cards, banners, proposed messages and other content to support the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which leads this year’s observance. Hosting an event to mark the Day? Add it to the virtual map of events around the world .

Did you know?

  • Every second, an equivalent of four football fields of healthy land becomes degraded, adding up to a total of 100 million hectares each year.
  • Each USD invested in land restoration can yield up to 30 USD in return. In many countries affected by desertification, land degradation and drought, agriculture represents a high share of economic revenue.
  • Under UNCCD, over 130 countries have already pledged to achieve land degradation neutrality (LDN) by 2030: a world where human activity has a neutral, or even positive, impact on the land.

Combat Desertification 2024 event save the date card

Monday, June 17, 2024

This year’s global observance will be hosted by the Government of Germany, a signatory to the convention and one of its dedicated supporters. Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of UNCCD, it will be a pivotal moment to raise global awareness and mobilize all parts of society in support of sustainable land stewardship. Changemakers from all around the world will gather in Bonn, Germany to walk the talk and spotlight initiatives to secure healthy land for present and future generations. UN Web TV -->.

Cover of the report Global Drought Snapshot 2023.

Global Drought Snapshot 2023

To combat the negative effects of drought, global drought resilience is not a matter of choice but a necessity. Proactive measures, landscape restoration, sustainable water management, regenerative agriculture and disaster preparedness can help mitigate the negative impacts of drought and ensure a better future.

Dry field

UNCCD COP16

The first major UN conference hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the first UNCCD COP to take place in the Middle East and North Africa region, UNCCD COP16 will be a landmark event to raise global ambition and accelerate action on land and drought resilience through a people-centered approach.

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Why do we mark International Days?

International days and weeks are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity. The existence of international days predates the establishment of the United Nations, but the UN has embraced them as a powerful advocacy tool. We also mark other UN observances .

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Desertification – Description, Causes, and Impacts (Essay)

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A Problem Statement

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Discussion of the Issue

The European Community recognizes that soil is the main natural resource, extremely complex in its composition, mostly not renewable, but despite this, some human activities lead to its serious damage. Soil consists of mineral and organic substances such as carbon, nutrients, water, air and living organisms and is a source of food, biomass and natural materials (D’Odorico et al. 331). It serves as a platform for the activities of mankind, constitutes an important element of the landscape and world heritage. The soil structure is extremely diverse: only in Europe, 10,000 types have been identified and grouped into 320 main categories. Any deterioration of soil conditions affects other natural environments and ecosystems. The formation of one centimeter of soil can take place over the centuries, and its destruction only because of wind or water is possible in a few years.

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Lastly, it should be stated that droughts and loss of land productivity are the main factors driving people to move from arid regions to other areas. The influx of migrants can negatively affect the population’s ability to use natural resources sustainably (Symeonakis et al. 1571). It can exacerbate the problem of urban overpopulation and, due to the competition for the right to use scarce natural resources, cause domestic, social, ethnic and political conflicts.

Existing Strategies of Coping with the Challenge

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The international community makes many attempts to succeed in solving the problem; however, these measures still do not provide an exact guarantee that the threat will be fully stopped. One should improve the governance structures to address this issue, and it is significant to reconsider the funding spent on the technological advancements that can help to tackle the issue. In 1994, the General Assembly proclaimed 17 June as World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought with the aim to raise awareness to the problems of drought and desertification (Bisaro et al. 9). This measure has been relevantly successful; however, it cannot fight the consequences of the phenomenon to the fullest extent.

How It Works

To continue, strategies that lead to unsustainable use of resources and a lack of supporting infrastructure are among the main causes of land degradation (Brandt and Geeson 121). Accordingly, it turns public policy and physical infrastructure into useful tools for solving the problem. Special attention is paid to agriculture as it can play both a positive and negative role depending on how it is done (Bisaro et al. 9). This, in turn, depends on available socioeconomic resources, the conduct of policy and the quality of management. Local institutions, such as community policymakers, that determine land use patterns and social networks, help prevent desertification allowing individuals to make better use of eco-system by increasing access to land, capital, labor and technology.

Lastly, a multi-country development project was implemented during 2010-2012 as a part of the activities of the Central Asian Countries Initiative for Land Management Program (generally abbreviated to CACILM). It is aimed at enhancing various states’ capacity to address problems related to land degradation. The main objectives of the project are to integrate the principles of sustainable land management (generally abbreviated to SLM) into national policies and legislation, and effective mobilization of resources for implementation.

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The fight against desertification and related economic challenges in dry lands is likely to be more effective when using an active approach to management. With its implementation, management of economic resources should take into account changes and raise the resilience of ecosystems, which also contributes to increasing the protection of society from the problems created by desertification. As a result, measures such as adaptation to climate change and the refusal to expand irrigated areas may together lead to a slowdown in the rate of desertification. It should be remembered that the benefits of this approach can only fully manifest themselves after a while because, first, it is necessary to introduce and consolidate the relevant changes in the development of society and its ability to master new approaches to land use. In contrast, with a reactive approach to management, the current pressure on eco-system services (climate change, overgrazing and large-scale irrigation) is likely to remain at the same level or even increase, leading to further desertification. It means that to stop the desertification, it is significant to take active measures which are expected to be dictated by the international community. Live Chat Order now

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Desertification in Africa: Causes, Effects and Solutions

Desertification in Africa: Causes, Effects and Solutions

Climate-induced desertification is having adverse effects on the African continent each year the Earth continues to warm. It impacts the everyday lives of Africans – from their crops, livestock, and housing – to African wildlife and biodiversity. In this article, we take a look at the causes of deforestation in Africa, how this phenomenon affects the continent today and what is being done to curb its effects.

What Is Desertification?

Desertification is “the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation or inappropriate agriculture.” It is where semi-arid lands, such as grasslands or shrublands, decrease and eventually disappear. According to the European Commission’s World Atlas of Desertification , more than 75% of the Earth’s land has already degraded. Unsurprisingly, the majority of desertification stems from climate change due to the destruction caused by extreme weather events, such as droughts and fires. According to the United Nations Development Program’s Drylands Population Assessment II, arid lands account for two-thirds of the African continent and three-quarters of Africa’s drylands used for agriculture.

The United Nations (UN) states that more than 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil disappear yearly due to desertification, which can happen for various reasons. The most common are deforestation , poor agricultural and livestock practices as well as the overexploitation of natural resources. Desertification has massive repercussions on the environment, including loss of biodiversity and vegetation, food insecurity, increased risk of zoonotic diseases (an infectious disease transmitted between species) such as COVID-19, loss of forest cover and shortages of drinking water due to the loss of aquifers.

You might also like: Desertification: Causes, Effects, And Solutions

A Brief History of Desertification in Africa

The origins of the word ‘desertification’ are most commonly attributed to French botanist André Aubréville’s 1949 work on African rainforests, though a study argues that it may even be traced back to the 19th-century French colonial North Africa. Talks of desertification in Africa began when the Comité d’Etudes commissioned a study to explore the prehistoric expansion of the Sahara Desert, which was obviously due to natural occurrences at the time. The phenomenon has existed in Africa for thousands of years and isn’t new. However, with societies developing and human activities rising, desertification has worsened considerably in recent decades.

Africa is home to one of the world’s most famous deserts, the Sahara, which is growing at a rate of 48 kilometres per year . Desertification and the expansion of deserts were not initially primarily due to human-induced climate change like they are nowadays. The world’s greatest deserts formed through natural processes interacting over many years , such as the evaporation of water, upwards winds, the descent of warm air and low humidity.

However, human activity has more recently come to either grow or shrink these deserts. To put human contributions into perspective, the Sahara has been growing rapidly since the 1920s – covering 10% more land than it used to according to a study by National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded scientists at the University of Maryland (UMD). The modern study of desertification that we are familiar with today, which considers climate change, emerged from studying the 1980s drought in the Sahel region – the most vulnerable region on the continent. The Sahel lies between the Saharan Desert and the Sudanian Savannah. It is a 3,000-mile stretch of land that includes ten counties and is under constant stress due to frequent droughts, soil erosion, and population growth which has increased logging, illegal farming and land clearing for housing. 

The 1980s drought is not the first human-induced event that affected the Sahel region. The desert has historically experienced a long series of droughts, but one of the most significant is the Sahelian drought and famine of 1968. It lasted until 1985 and was directly linked to the death of approximately 100,000 people and disruption of millions of lives. Human exploitation of natural resources (such as overgrazing and deforestation) was originally believed to be the sole cause behind the drought. Still, it has been suggested that large-scale climate changes also triggered the drought.

Despite being the most affected area in Africa, the Sahel is not the only region dealing with desertification. Some of the most affected areas include the Karoo in South Africa, which has endured semi-arid conditions for the last 500 years, Somalia, which has suffered three major drought crises in the last decade alone, and Ethiopia, with 75% of its land affected by desertification and a major famine between 1983 and1985. With desertification becoming a more significant problem each year, these consequences will only increase if nothing is done to curb the climate crisis.

Desertification in Africa Today

As of 2022, it is estimated that 60% of the African population lives in arid, semi-arid, dry sub-humid and hyper-arid areas. The Sahel remains the most vulnerable and affected area in the African continent today, as well as globally. This makes it extremely difficult for people to work and make a living due to extremely dry land for growing crops.

“It’s been a rough year,” said Convoy of Hope’s Regional Disaster & Stabilization Specialist, Bryan Burr. “Drought after drought. Animals are dying. Crops aren’t growing. What food they do get is imported grain, and that’s not coming in now.”

Africa’s economy today relies on agriculture, with many Africans making high profits from harvesting and exporting crops such as cowpea, millet, maize, cocoa and cotton. However, it is estimated that as much as 65% of productive land in Africa is degraded – with desertification being the main culprit affecting 45% of the continent and the remaining 55% being at high risk of further degradation. 

According to the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), Africa loses 3 million hectares of its forests a year , leading to a 3% loss of GDP associated with soil and nutrient depletion. Due to the inevitable loss of land productivity, Africa has spent more than $43 billion on annual food imports, and farmers are losing out on profits due to soil infertility. 

desertification in africa

Image 1: Desertification and Climate Change in Africa

As a result of these consequences, it is smaller farmers and households that have suffered the most. Degradation of land and the depletion of healthy soils, tree cover and clean water means they can no longer grow crops and provide for themselves. 

“There are almost no more trees, and the grass does not grow anymore. So, each year, we have to go further and further away to find grazing for our cattle,” a Senegalese cattle herder, Khalidou Badaram, told the BBC in 2015.

The consequences of desertification affect not only Africans but also the country’s rich biodiversity and habitats. The continent is home to the world’s second-largest rainforest, the Congo Basin, and hosts 17% of the world’s forests and 31% of woodlands across the Sahel and other regions. However, despite Africa’s abundant rainforests for wildlife to thrive in, desertification has crept in to disrupt some of what animals call home. 

Dr Toroitich Victor, Response Officer for Africa, World Animal Protection, said that “in Africa, drought is one of the greatest disasters that threaten and cause animal deaths” as the changing climate is desertifying their habitat. 

You might also like: Deforestation in Africa: Causes, Effects, and Solutions

Since desertification has contributed significantly to farmers’ lack of fertile soil and land to grow and sell crops, many Africans have to turn to other means to make a living. Unfortunately, this may result in a decline of African animal populations. For instance, the Black Rhino is a native species to Africa but has been hunted into near extinction to meet the global demand for the Rhinoceros horn. These Rhinoceros horns can reach up to US$400,000 per kilogram.

Animals such as the African Elephant has suffered a similar fate due to the ivory trade. Gorilla numbers are also plummeting due to habitat loss. Farmers have been forced to make more room for agricultural development since much of the available land is no longer arable. Intensive agriculture methods are responsible for up to 80% of deforestation , the United Nation’s Global Land Outlook 2 report found, highlighting that desertification is having a knock-on impact on various environmental tragedies. 

What Are We Doing to Stop African Desertification? 

Desertification is becoming an increasingly important problem for much of Africa, so initiatives have been implemented to curb its spread. 

“One of the best, most comprehensive solutions [to fixing desertification] is land restoration, which addresses many of the underlying factors of degraded water cycles and the loss of soil fertility,” the UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw told the United Nations. 

With the Sahel region being the most vulnerable and heavily affected by desertification, an initiative known as ‘The Green Wall’ was put in place for the Sahara and Sahel in 2007. Its ambitious aim is to grow an 8,000-kilometre natural wonder across the entire width of Africa in order to increase the amount of arable land bordering the Sahara desert. The idea is that planting more trees will combat desertification, create jobs, increase food security and bring migrated populations back home to Africa. 

The initiative is showing signs of significant progress. 18 million trees have been planted in Senegal since its launch in 200, and the growth of this figure will hopefully prevent the Sahara from advancing on the land most affected by desertification and reduce soil erosion in the process. 37 million acres of degraded land in Ethiopia have also been restored due to this initiative. The Great Green Wall’s goal for 2030 is to restore 247 million acres of destroyed land and create 10 million jobs in affected rural areas.

Due to the scale of disruption caused by climate change in Africa, The ‘Wall’ is only one of many initiatives in place. For instance, to recover lost rainforests and save the remaining forests left in Africa, the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) was launched in 2015 to restore 100 million hectares by 2030. The roadmap for development Agenda 2063 was also implemented to commit to several issues. These include ecosystem restoration, protecting, restoring and promoting the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests and combating desertification. Lastly, a similar initiative to AFR100, the Pan-African Agenda on Ecosystem Restoration for building resilience, led to commitments to restore 200 million hectares of forest in Africa – a much more ambitious commitment than the AFR100 initiative. 

You might also like: The Great Green Wall Receives an Economic Boost, But Is It Enough to Save It?

Although it has taken over a decade to see significant improvements in reversing the devastating effects of desertification, the advances we have seen since initiatives were put in place are major. With millions of hectares of forest regained, which is only growing yearly, the outlook for restoring healthy green land looks positive. AFR100’s goal of restoring 100 million hectares by 2030 is not as far-fetched as we may think despite the ambitious goal, especially since the Great Green wall received $14 billion in funding for the next ten years at the recent One Planet Summit for Biodiversity. This financial support will vastly scale up efforts to restore degraded land, create green jobs, strengthen resilience and protect biodiversity. Despite the catastrophes caused by desertification, there is hope for a green future.

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Desertification: Definition, Causes, and Impacts

desertification phenomenon

Desertification is a growing problem in our world, due to a mix of climate change and poor land  management. In this article we will define desertification, its causes, its impacts, and what can be done  to stop it.

What is desertification?

For such a transition to be considered desertification, the land must: 

  • Undergo land degradation – land’s loss of current or future productive capabilities.
  • Be dryland – land in an arid, semi-arid, or dry sub-humid climate.  

In dry climates, soil moisture tends to correlate with short-term rainfall patterns – the wetter the soil,  the higher likelihood of rain the next day. So, a wet season is likelier to be wetter if there are more plants in a dryland to hold the moisture. But if over time more and more plants die from desertification, it can be challenging to stop the cycle. 

Why is desertification important?

Desertification is a serious environmental concern. It has significant consequences for both ecosystems and human populations.  

Dryland makes up about 46% of all the land on earth, an area home to 3 billion people.  There are six  countries that have 99% or more of their land classified as dryland. 

Desertification is a global problem - 17 countries, which are home to nearly 2 billion people, have highly  stressed aquifers. That means water, food, and land for a quarter of the world’s population is at serious  risk.

If desertification and climate change are not taken seriously, it is likely that millions of people will choose to leave their homes for areas with more consistent access to food and water.

What are the causes of desertification?

Desertification is caused by a multitude factors that often compound each other. Variations in the climate play a part in the phenomenon, as do human activities. 

Urbanization and improper agriculture and land management practices drive factors that cause  desertification, including: 

  • Deforestation 
  • Forest fires 
  • Pesticide use 
  • Excessive irrigation 
  • Overgrazing 

Drylands, by definition, get little rain. Therefore, the groundwater supply of drylands is typically a fragile  resource. As droughts intensify, lengthen, and become more common with climate change, the aquifers holding the groundwater will shrink year by year, even when they are refilled by rains. 

a dry land

Climate change intensifying droughts

Since the early 1900s, global drought has been steadily increasing due to greenhouse gas emissions by  humans. 

The addition of more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere has been steadily warming our planet and  contributing to climate change. Warmer temperatures make more water evaporate from earth’s  surface. This means plants have a harder time holding on to moisture and staying hydrated in arid areas. 

During each year from 2000 until 2020, about 20% to 70% of the U.S. land area experienced anywhere  from abnormally dry (going into drought) conditions to exceptional drought (widespread crop and  pasture loss). 

In fact, the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico are in the midst of a 22-year-long  megadrought. That makes it the worst drought in that area in over 1,200 years, despite the common  nature of megadroughts there from 800 to 1600.

Poor land management 

When drought-affected areas are well managed, the land can rebound when rain inevitably comes. 

But drylands that are poorly managed during drought have a much harder time recovering to pre drought stability.  Heavy use of groundwater for irrigation, drinking water, putting out forest fires, or  urbanization needs can limit the water available for plants to rely on during drought.  

Two other big factors of poor land management are overgrazing of cattle and excessive use of  pesticides. These common practices contribute to desertification by deteriorating soil health and  texture. 

Overpopulation can also lead to improper land management. It creates greater demands on the soil for food than it can sustainably give. Overuse can easily trigger erosion of quality soil, which will put more stress on nearby land to compensate for this loss. 

one green leaf among dry leaves

Desertification, impacts

One of the main impacts of desertification is biodiversity loss. As dry land ecosystems get drier and more inhospitable, fewer plants and animals can adapt and survive.  

Forest fires and low soil quality, as we have discussed, are also common consequences of  desertification. An area becoming more arid makes it more fire friendly. And as soil deteriorates with  erosion, it cannot hold as much moisture, further adding to forest fire potential.  

Habitat loss is inevitable when an ecosystem is ravaged by forest fires, depleting soil, increased  temperatures and more sparce precipitation. Animals and plants are forced to migrate but finding new homes can be challenging – it depends on environmental conditions and competition for resources.

Impact on humans 

Of course, land becoming desert makes the area less hospitable to humans as well. 

The productivity of crops and livestock tends to go down due to desertification. Wildfires are more likely  to spark as drylands become drier, threatening humans themselves, their crops, and their livestock. 

When the rare rains eventually do come, poor soil conditions can lead to flooding and polluted water  sources, compounding water stress on communities. 

You may be wondering where desertification is happening or where it is likely to occur.  

As we know, desertification happens only in areas that are already particularly dry. While not all  drylands are near a desert, desertification is most likely to happen on the shoulder of the desert – where  precipitation is as or more sparce than on the dryland itself.

Desertification is creeping its way across California

The Golden State, as an agricultural capital of the U.S., is particularly thirsty for water. Unfortunately, a good chunk of California has experienced drought for much of the last decade.  

It’s fair to say that during this period, the land has not been managed very well - parts of the state’s  central valley have sunk as much as two feet each year due to excessive groundwater use.  

Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Fresno seem to be the areas most vulnerable to desertification. Besides  agriculture, the vulnerability is due to factors like drought, urbanization, and deforestation, which all  contribute to forest fire potential as well. 

Two thirds of the continent of Africa is currently classified as either dryland or desert. That was not always the case – but with desertification increasing, transitionary land between desert and non-desert  has become less and less habitable.  

For example, the Sahel, a long band of dryland separating the Sahara Desert from the humid savannas to  the South, becomes more barren each year. Desertification happens there partly due to growing  populations’ greater demands on the land for sustenance. Also, the cattle commonly overeat the limited  supply of grass, leaving the soil exposed to erosion when rainfall comes. 

However, there is a movement to replant native Acacia trees to the region.  They will help hold the topsoil in place and keep the Sahara from encroaching further. The trees have also been helping  communities of the Sahel economically, giving them more community support than just ecological.

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What can be done to stop or reverse desertification?

Planting native trees in dryland areas is a great solution to keeping desertification at bay and reverse what has already happened. Flora native to drylands tend to be drought-resistant and can hold onto soil,  limiting erosion.  And as trees do, they can help limit global warming by removing carbon from the  atmosphere. 

Another way to limit desertification is by protecting windy areas. We can do this by building a wind  fence or planting an ecological border, which will be key to limiting soil erosion.

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Desertification is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems . It affects the livelihoods of millions of people. In 2000, drylands , which occupy 41% of Earth’s land area, were home to a third of the human population. A significant portion of drylands are already degraded , and the ongoing desertification threatens the world’s poorest populations and hinders the prospects of reducing poverty . Therefore, desertification is one of the greatest environmental challenges today. It is a major barrier to meeting basic human needs in drylands and leads to losses in terms of human well-being .

The causes of desertification include social, political, economic, and climatic factors that contribute to an unsustainable use of scarce natural resources. The magnitude and impacts of desertification vary greatly from place to place and change over time. Furthermore, wide gaps remain in our understanding and monitoring of desertification processes, gaps which sometimes prevent cost-effective actions in affected areas.

Outside of drylands , desertification also has strong adverse impacts, for example by increasing the occurrence of dust storms which affect areas thousands of kilometers away from the desertified areas and can cause political and social problems because of human migrations.

Depending on the degree of dryness of a region, desertification can be prevented and dryland ecosystems restored through specific interventions and adaptations. On the whole, prevention is a much more effective way to cope with desertification, because later attempts to rehabilitate desertified areas are costly and tend to deliver limited results.

The four scenarios developed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment to explore the future of desertification and human well-being in drylands show that total desertified area is likely to increase, and that the relief of pressures on drylands is strongly linked to poverty reduction. The scenarios also show that proactive management approaches will probably be the most effective in coping with desertification. On the whole, combating desertification yields multiple local and global benefits and helps mitigate biodiversity loss and human-induced global climate change . Environmental management approaches aiming to combat desertification, mitigate climate change, and conserve biodiversity are interlinked in many ways. Therefore, joint implementation of major environmental conventions can lead to increased synergy and effectiveness, benefiting dryland populations .

Effectively dealing with desertification will help reduce global poverty , and is essential for meeting the Millennium Development Goals . Dryland populations must have access to viable alternatives in order to be able to maintain their livelihoods without causing desertification. These alternatives should be embedded in national strategies to reduce poverty and combat desertification. More...

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  • 1. What is desertification?
  • 2. How are desertification and human well-being linked?
  • 3. Who is affected by desertification?
  • 4. What are the major causes of desertification?
  • 5. How will different future development paths influence desertification?
  • 6. How can we prevent or reverse desertification?
  • 7. Is there a link between desertification, global climate change, and biodiversity loss?
  • 8. How can we better understand desertification?

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Desertification and Drought

Profile image of Victor SQUIRES

Both desertification and drought are ill-defined concepts, as will be explained here. A significant problem militating against clearer understanding of desertification as a tangible process relates to its confused relationship with the terms " drought, " " climatic variation, " " climate change, " and " climatic fluctuation, " which are all used interchangeably in the literature. Some clarification of these terms is necessary as climate is inherently variable at all scales. Confusion also arises in the literature relating to the corresponding adaptive vegetation changes that the cyclicity of rainfall imposes on the plant community vis-à-vis negative conditions imposed on vegetation as a result of sustained anthropogenic activity. Both cyclical (climatic) and anthropogenic changes are evident in most drylands worldwide. However, the difficulty of differentiating between the effects of normal cyclical changes and anthropogenic changes has led to unreasonable attempts to exclude vegetative indicators from studies of desertification.

Related Papers

Roland Baumhauer

Desertification, together with its economic and social impact and side effects, is a major problem in large parts of the drylands of the world. It is mainly for climatic reasons that these regions are susceptible to the processes of desertification. Predictions of climate development suggest changes of the two climatic parameters most significant for desertification: temperature and precipitation. Introductory remarks on the definition, distribution, causes and process of desertification are followed by a discussion of the possible effects climate change will have on the frequency and intensity of climatic extreme events, on water budget respectively the availability of water, and also on vegetation. All of them are either inherent parts of desertification processes or closely related to them. In spite of all the uncertainties involved in climate prediction it is quite likely that there will be winner and looser regions. Those with already extreme climatic conditions today – i.e. ma...

drought and desertification essay

Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change

Victor SQUIRES

Poor knowledge of links between desertification and globalclimate change is limiting funding from the Global Environment Facility foranti-desertification projects and realization of synergies between theConvention to Combat Desertification (CCD) and the FrameworkConvention on Climate Change (FCCC). Greater convergence betweenresearch in the two fields could overcome these limitations, improve ourknowledge of desertification, and benefit four areas of global climate changestudies: mitigation assessment; accounting for land cover change in thecarbon budget; land surface-atmosphere interactions; and climate changeimpact forecasting. Convergence would be assisted if desertification weretreated more as a special case in dry areas of the global process of landdegradation, and stimulated by: (a) closer cooperation between the FCCCand CCD; (b) better informal networking between desertification and globalclimate change scientists, e.g. within the framework of theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Both strategies wouldbe facilitated if the FCCC and CCD requested the IPCC to provide ascientific framework for realizing the synergies between them.

In: Madalon T. Hinchey (ed.), Proceedings of the Symposium on Drought in Botswana, National Museum, Gabarone, Botswana, June 5th to 8th, 1978. Botswana Society, in collaboration with Clark University Press, Hanover New Hampshire

Although the process of desertification has operated in the past, this century is peculiar in the severity of the risks and the extent of regions threatened by this process. The seriousness of the situation varies from country to country within the arid zone, and is greatest in poorer semiarid lands lacking industries and marketable resources such as oil. The author suggests that the imbalance among nations underlies and compounds the problems both of drought hazards and of the longer term degradation of semiarid lands. He concludes that the present order is basically unstable, liable to be disrupted within a period of less than a lifetime. Under such circumstances, it is essential over the long term to conserve the natural biological resources of the world's semiarid lands.

Yearbook of International Environmental Law

Lynn Wagner

WOrkout FRJANOME

RESUMEN E n este trabajo se realizó una revisión de la desertificación, un proceso de degradación de la capacidad productiva de la tierra, en particular en las regiones áridas y semiáridas del mundo. Debido a que la desertificación aumenta progresivamente, se estudian las causas que originan y agudizan este fenómeno en todo el mundo. En general, las causas de la desertificación se derivan de la presión combinada de un clima adverso y fluctuante, y de la sobreexplotación de los re-cursos naturales. Se describen aspectos relacionados con la extensión y severidad de la desertificación mundial, así como las particularidades de la degradación de la tierra en México. Se plantean, además, las características de los procesos de desertificación. Se considera la intrincada red de relaciones existentes entre las condiciones ambientales, las actividades productivas y sus efectos sobre los recursos bióticos, edáficos e hidrológicos. Finalmente, se presenta una serie de propuestas relacionadas con la aplicación de medidas preventivas y correctivas que tienden a prevenir y detener la desertificación. ABSTRACT T his paper presents a review of desertification, a process of degradation of the productive capacity of the land, particularly in arid and semiarid regions of the world. Because desertification increases gradually, the reasons why this worldwide phenomenon occurs and worsens were studied. In general, desertification results from the combined pressure of an adverse and fluctuating climate and overexploitation of natural resources. Aspects related to the extent and severity ofdesertification worldwide are explored, as well as the particularities of land degradation in Mexico. Moreover, the characteristics of desertification processes are outlined, taking into account the intricate network of relationships between environmental conditions and productive activities and their effects on biotic, edaphic and hydrological resources. Finally, a series of proposals relating to the application of preventative and corrective measures that tend to prevent and curb desertification are presented.

Land Degradation & Development

Uriel Safriel

QUEST JOURNALS

Desertification is the degradation process by which a fertile land changes itself into a desert by losing its flora and fauna this can be caused by drought, deforestation, climate change, human activities or improper agriculture. Desertification is a process of degradation of the land. It occurs because of man-made activities and climate change. Desertification takes place when a particular type of biome converts into a desert biome.Desertification constitutes one of the "global" international environmental problems the world is facing. It has been recognized as a problem of significant importance since the early 1970s but the international community has never given it its full attention and commitment. In particular adequate financial resources have not been forthcoming, partly because the impacts of desertification in any given region do not spill over to other regions. The international community has addressed the threat of desertification through a convention negotiated at the level of the United Nations. It constitutes a significant effort to mainstream desertification but remains a peripheral instrument with rather weak commitments.

Elisabeth Huber-Sannwald

Drylands are regions of the globe where the index of aridity (IA)—defined as the ratio of mean annual precipitation (P) to mean annual potential evapotranspiration (PET)—is less than 0.65 (see Chapters 1 and 8). If we restrict IA to the range of 0.05 to 0.65, drylands consist of arid, semiarid, and dry sub-humid regions, which together cover approximately 5.2 billion hectares or 40% of the land area of the world (Table 1). This definition excludes hyper-arid regions of the globe where IA < 0.05, such as the Atacama, Arabian, and Sahara deserts (ca. 0.98 billion hectares or 7.5% of global land area). Based on human land use, ca. 88% of drylands are classified as rangeland, with the remaining 12% used in agricultural production (3% irrigated cropland, 9% rainfed; Table 1). Combined, Asia and Africa contain 64% of all global drylands, dwarfing the amount of dryland area on other continents. In terms of importance, however, these numbers can be somewhat misleading. While Europe contains only ca. 5% of the world’s drylands, this represents over 32% of its landmass and is home to 25% of its population. Similarly, Australia contains about 10% of the world’s drylands but they cover over 75% of the continent and are home to 25% of its population.

Y. El-Ladan

African Journal of Range & Forage Science

Timm Hoffman

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Desertification and Drought Day 2024: “United for Land: Our Legacy. Our Future”

drought and desertification essay

Mobilizing all generations in support of sustainable land stewardship is the focus of Desertification and Drought Day 2024, celebrated on 17 June, marking a pivotal moment in the global effort to combat land degradation and drought. Hosted by the Federal Republic of Germany through the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the event brought together changemakers from around the world under the theme “United for Land: Our Legacy. Our Future”.

This year’s event coincides with the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) , the sole global agreement dedicated to sustainable land management ratified by 196 countries and the European Union.

UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw said: “ The future of our land is the future of our planet.  By 2050, 10 billion people will depend on this vital resource. Yet we are losing the equivalent of four football fields to land degradation every second .”

State Secretary Jochen Flasbarth said: “ Healthy soils form the basis of our future. No matter whether we are talking about climate change, biodiversity loss, or food crises – soil quality plays a central role for meeting these global challenges. Soils retain water and allow trees and plants to grow. We will only be able to feed humankind and deal with the climate crisis and its impacts if we have healthy soils.”

Land degradation affects up to 40% of the world’s land and nearly half the world’s population, with the highest costs borne by those who can least afford it: indigenous communities, rural households, smallholder farmers, and especially youth and women. More than a billion young people who live in developing countries depend on land and natural resources. Engaging youth in land restoration can create the estimated 600 million jobs needed in the next 15 years, contributing to both economic growth and environmental sustainability.

The event culminated in a series of announcements and commitments to promote sustainable land management. A new programme to train youth negotiators to become future decision-makers on land and drought issues was launched. In its first year, youth negotiators from more than 30 countries will receive training ahead of the  16 th  Conference of the Parties (COP16)  to the UNCCD, to be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2024.

Bonn Mayor Katja Dörner, in cooperation with UNCCD, inaugurated the city’s first “land-friendly” school. This unique programme gives students the opportunity to learn about organic farming through both educational and practical lessons on the school’s farmland.

Countries around the world also organized Desertification and Drought Day events.

About UNCCD The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is an international agreement on good land stewardship. It helps people, communities and countries create wealth, grow economies and secure enough food, clean water and energy by ensuring land users an enabling environment for sustainable land management. Through partnerships, the Convention’s 197 parties set up robust systems to manage drought promptly and effectively. Good land stewardship based on sound policy and science helps integrate and accelerate achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, builds resilience to climate change and prevents biodiversity loss.

About Desertification and Drought Day Officially declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994 (A/RES/49/115), Desertification and Drought Day, marked annually on 17 June, has the following objectives:

  • To promote public awareness of the issues linked to desertification, land degradation and drought
  • To showcase human-led solutions to prevent desertification and reverse intensifying droughts
  • To strengthen the implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

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INTERVIEW: Sustainable energy offers ‘hope’ in fight against desertification and land loss

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Sustainable sources of energy, including solar and wind power, can help communities across the world to reverse desertification and land loss, according to Ibrahim Thiaw, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. 

Mr. Thiaw spoke to UN News ahead of the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought , marked annually on 17 June

Ibrahim Thiaw: Desertification is happening at the local level as much as it is global. Unless we address this at the local level, we will never be able to actually control it at the global level. Global policies and global decisions are needed. 

The impacts are huge in terms of food security and food sovereignty.

It also drives forced migration. If people can no longer produce food on their land then they will migrate. As we have seen for example in the Sahel or Haiti, there can be severe consequences for global security. When people fight over access to land and water, it leads to more conflicts. We are seeing more of this, and it has consequences on the homogeneity of communities and on national economies.

UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw visits the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, which is suffering the effects of drought.

It is estimated that up to 50 per cent of the global GDP might lost by 2050 due to challenges with agriculture and food production unless we address the issue of land loss and desertification. 

UN News: What is the trend right now in terms of land loss?

Ibrahim Thiaw: Land loss is happening all over the world and land degradation is affecting both arid and less arid lands.

But in terms of drylands and desertification, it is estimated that 45 per cent of the land surface is affected by desertification. Maybe it is more striking to say that 3.2 billion people or one third of the world population are affected by that. 

Every year a hundred million hectares of land is being degraded, an area the size of Egypt. We need to halt land degradation, but we also need to restore 1.5 billion hectares of land.

UN News: How are you going to do that? 

Ibrahim Thiaw: By improving the techniques of agriculture, reducing the impact we are having on land in terms of extraction of minerals and other extractive industries. It is also important that we reduce the pressure in terms of people activities in some parts of the world so as to diversify the economy and create more opportunities to create income.

Two men plant trees as part of a reforestation initiative in coastal areas of Bangladesh.

Restoring degraded land is not an expensive activity to undertake, but it is absolutely essential to provide more food security and to reduce conflicts. Every single dollar invested in land restoration can generate up to $30 in economic benefits, so investment in restoration activities is quite profitable from the economic point of view.

This is not just the responsibility of local communities but also of governments and crucially of the private sector because the largest driver of land use in the world is big agriculture.

UN News: Are we talking mainly about small developing countries? 

Ibrahim Thiaw: No. It's a global phenomenon that is affecting all countries including the United States, India, China, India or Pakistan.

But the impact is much more severe in small countries, and small economies that do not have reserves, nor the insurance systems to protect their people. And the level of vulnerability is much higher in communities whose revenues are only based on the income they can generate from land. 

UN News Desertification doesn't exist in isolation. How does it relate to climate change?

Ibrahim Thiaw: Desertification is an amplifier of climate change. Climate change is an amplifier of desertification because of course, with extreme events, you also have severe impact on land and on communities and local economies. 

Many migrants, like these ones in Djibouti, are leaving home because they can no longer live off their land.

So basically, they are mutually interacting and it is therefore important to have a more comprehensive global picture. It is wrong to think that you can protect biodiversity or the land without tackling the climate issue and vice versa. 

UN News: The small-scale interventions at a local level are very important, but it sounds as though it's going to need a huge push from governments, from the private sector to make a real difference?

Ibrahim Thiaw: Yes, we should not discard all of the efforts that are being made by the local communities day in, day out. They need much more support from governments. They also need to see less subsidies for the agriculture industry, that is destroying the environment. Public money that, in some cases, is destroying the environment should be used to actually rebuild economies. 

So, it is not necessarily that we need to inject more money, but we need to better spend the money that we have.

UN News: I guess some would say that's quite an over optimistic view that governments will be changing the way they spend their money? 

Ibrahim Thiaw: Well, no, it makes sense politically. As a taxpayer, I would like to see where my money is going. If it is being invested in activities that are destroying my environment and creating eco-anxiety for my children, destroying the livelihoods of my communities, then as a voter, I would insist that my government invests my money in other areas that would be generating more income for me and creating more sustainability.

UN News: You're from Mauritania in the Sahel. Have you seen this land degradation happen in real time? 

Ibrahim Thiaw: The situation is very sad. I've seen land degradation in my lifetime. But at the same time, I also have a lot of hope because I see positive changes coming. I see the younger generation being conscious of the fact that they need to reverse the trend.

I see more farmers and pastoralists trying to do their bit. I see more interventions from the international community, including from the humanitarian world that are investing in land restoration. So, I see a movement which gives me some hope that if we join our efforts and if we work in a collaborative manner, it would be possible to actually reverse the trend.

And the best hope I have is energy, which was the missing link for development and for small and medium enterprises. Energy is now accessible in remote places thanks to our ability to harness solar and wind energy. 

And the possibility of combining energy and agriculture is very positive, as you can harvest water, store food, reduce the food loss. You can process that food to create chains at the local level.

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  • Desertification

drought and desertification essay

Desertification and Drought Day “United for Land. Our Legacy. Our Future" - 17 June 2024

drought and desertification essay

This year's theme of Desertification and Drought Day, “United for Land. Our Legacy. Our Future,” underscores the critical importance of collective action to preserve our planet's vital land resources for future generations.

Land is the foundation of our food systems, with 95% of the world's food produced on agricultural land. However, one third of these lands are currently degraded. This degradation affects 3.2 billion people worldwide, particularly impacting rural communities and smallholder farmers who depend on land for their livelihoods, leading to increased hunger, poverty, unemployment, and forced migration.

Climate change further exacerbates these issues, posing significant challenges to sustainable land management and agriculture, and undermining ecosystems' resilience.

Protecting and restoring degraded land is essential to ending poverty and hunger, achieving food security, and improving the livelihoods of millions of people, especially in developing countries.

The sustainable management of land, soil and water ressources are essential to increase food production, conserve ecosystems, improve land, soil and water quality, and strengthen the resilience of rural communities to extreme weather events.

drought and desertification essay

Addressing land degradation through a holistic, landscape approach is critical to ensuring food security and resilient livelihoods. Integrated Land Use Planning, land governance, and tenure security are fundamental to achieving land degradation neutrality.

Over the past decade, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been at the forefront of technical programmes and activities supporting these initiatives.

In our efforts to restore and enhance ecosystem resilience and productivity, the following principles should be prioritized: 

  • We must prioritize women and youth who are vital stakeholders in land health and suffer most from land degradation, in order to ensure that science-based and people-centered land restoration becomes our legacy to future generations.
  • We can’t tackle land degradation without unlocking the economic potential of degraded lands and drylands and building back more resilient agrifood systems.  
  • Large-scale land restoration for small-scale farming is crucial to combat land degradation.
  • We need to use innovative monitoring and evaluation systems to measure progress towards achieving land degradation neutrality.

drought and desertification essay

FAO remains committed to working closely with members and partners to combat land degradation, desertification and drought, striving for a land degradation-neutral world for present and future generations.

In the context of the Drought and Desertification Day, FAO will launch the Protocol for the assessment of sustainable soil management in an online roundtable. This Protocol will provide governments, technical institutes, NGOs and other stakeholders with the necessary tools and methodologies to assess and improve soil management practices. Details on this roundtable are forthcoming.

drought and desertification essay

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UPSC Sansad TV: AIR- Desertification, Its Impact, and Sustainable Solutions

Introduction

Desertification is a severe environmental issue characterized by the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, primarily due to human activities and climatic variations. It is a process that transforms fertile land into deserts, leading to a loss of biodiversity, reduced agricultural productivity, and increased vulnerability to climatic extremes. Understanding desertification, its impacts, and exploring sustainable solutions is crucial for ensuring environmental sustainability and human well-being.

Causes of Desertification

  • Deforestation : The removal of trees reduces soil fertility, increases soil erosion, and disrupts the water cycle.
  • Overgrazing: Excessive grazing by livestock strips vegetation cover, leaving the soil exposed to erosion.
  • Unsustainable Agriculture: Practices such as monocropping, improper irrigation, and use of chemical fertilizers degrade soil quality.
  • Climate Change: Rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns exacerbate desertification by reducing soil moisture and increasing evaporation rates.
  • Urbanization and Infrastructure Development : Expansion of cities and construction activities disturb natural land cover and contribute to soil degradation.

Impacts of Desertification

  • Loss of Arable Land: Desertification reduces the availability of fertile land for agriculture, leading to decreased food production.
  • Water Scarcity: Degraded land holds less water, exacerbating water shortages in already arid regions.
  • Biodiversity Loss : Habitat destruction and altered ecosystems lead to the loss of plant and animal species.
  • Economic Consequences: Reduced agricultural productivity affects livelihoods, particularly in rural communities, leading to poverty and migration.
  • Social and Political Instability: Resource scarcity can lead to conflicts over land and water, creating social and political tensions.

Sustainable Solutions to Combat Desertification

  • Afforestation and Reforestation: Planting trees and restoring forests help improve soil fertility, prevent erosion, and enhance the water cycle.
  • Sustainable Land Management (SLM): Implementing SLM practices such as crop rotation, conservation tillage, and organic farming improves soil health and productivity.
  • Water Management Techniques: Efficient irrigation methods like drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting ensure optimal use of water resources.
  • Agroforestry: Integrating trees and shrubs into agricultural landscapes enhances soil structure, provides shade, and reduces erosion.
  • Community Involvement: Engaging local communities in land management and conservation efforts ensures sustainable practices and long-term success.
  • Policy and Legislation: Strong policies and regulations are needed to promote sustainable land use and protect against unsustainable practices.
  • Climate Adaptation Strategies: Developing and implementing strategies to adapt to climate change, such as drought-resistant crops and resilient farming practices.
  • Education and Awareness: Raising awareness about the causes and impacts of desertification and educating communities on sustainable practices.

Way Forward

  • Strengthening International Cooperation: Collaborative efforts at regional and global levels are essential to address desertification. Initiatives like the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) play a pivotal role.
  • Investment in Research and Innovation: Investing in research to develop innovative technologies and practices that enhance land productivity and resilience.
  • Capacity Building: Training and empowering local communities and stakeholders to adopt and implement sustainable land management practices.
  • Monitoring and Evaluation: Establishing robust monitoring systems to track land degradation and the effectiveness of interventions.
  • Promoting Green Technologies: Encouraging the use of renewable energy sources and sustainable agricultural technologies to reduce environmental impact.
  • Integrating Desertification into Development Plans: Incorporating desertification control measures into national and regional development strategies.
  • Enhancing Public-Private Partnerships: Leveraging the strengths of both sectors to finance and implement sustainable land management projects.
  • Focus on Gender Equity: Ensuring that women, who are often most affected by desertification, are included in decision-making processes and benefit from sustainable solutions.

Desertification is a critical environmental challenge that threatens the sustainability of ecosystems and human livelihoods. Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach, involving sustainable land management practices, community participation, and robust policy frameworks. By implementing sustainable solutions and fostering international cooperation, it is possible to mitigate the impacts of desertification and promote a resilient and productive environment. The way forward lies in collective action, innovative solutions, and a commitment to sustainable development goals, ensuring a healthier planet for future generations.

Sansad TV : AIR- Desertification, Its Impact, and Sustainable Solutions [PDF]

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June 20, 2024

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Sudan Starves

June 23, 2024

People in downtown Khartoum fleeing fighting, April 15, 2023

Ninety-five percent of Sudan’s total grain production occurs in November and December. It should be a time of plenty. In the southeastern state of Blue Nile, farmers fashion conical gourds into  wazza , horn instruments with a bright clear sound, which they play to celebrate the harvest season. Last year they were silent.

In April 2023 a war broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the major factions of Sudan’s ruling military junta. The conflict has created a humanitarian catastrophe. In January the UN published a report claiming that during the first eight months of the war, between 10,000 and 15,000 people were killed just in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state; no one knows how many have died overall. Over a million people have fled abroad. Ten million are internally displaced, more than in any other country.

The belligerents have targeted residential buildings, humanitarian resources, banks, and government ministries. They have also disrupted agriculture. Both sides have pillaged farms and destroyed crucial infrastructure, including 75 percent of flour-milling capacity. 

Parts of the country are now in famine. Over fifteen million Sudanese people were already acutely food insecure before the war began. Hunger has drastically increased since then, in part because of the fall in grain production, which during the 2023–2024 harvest season was 46 percent below that of the previous year—a shortfall estimated at 3.7 million tons.

As of October 2023, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a global monitoring agency,  claimed  that nearly eighteen million people, almost 40 percent of the population, faced acute hunger. Those figures were calculated before the extent of the last harvest’s failure was known. Last month the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, released a  report  suggesting that 2.5 million people will die from famine-related causes by the end of September. Sudan is experiencing the largest famine the world has seen for at least forty years.

Addressing a famine of this magnitude would require an enormous buildup of humanitarian aid, which prior to the war constituted only a tiny part of the Sudanese food system. In 2022 the UN’s food agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), supplied the grain needs of 4 percent of the population. Expanding food assistance at this scale is not impossible: the WFP did it in 2021 after the fall of Kabul. But in Afghanistan the humanitarian appeal was fully funded by international donors. The picture in Sudan is bleaker.

Over fifty million acutely food insecure people live in the Horn of Africa, but the region receives a fraction of the funding the UN requests, in contrast to Ukraine, whose appeals are consistently overfunded. In mid-April, at a donor conference in Paris, Western governments pledged $2 billion for relief in Sudan. That seems impressive, but it meets only half the UN’s appeal—and so far only $468 million has come through. 

There are other challenges. The UN regards the SAF as Sudan’s legitimate government and seeks its authorization for all aid delivery; it fears being thrown out of the country otherwise. The SAF has taken advantage of this arrangement to channel aid to the territories it controls, which mainly lie in the north and east, while largely preventing deliveries to RSF-held areas, which include almost all of Darfur in the west and a broad swathe running through West Kordofan to Gezira state in the center. (A patchwork of other armed groups also hold territory.) This siege has been especially devastating because the RSF controls some of the most severely food insecure regions, including much of Darfur.

drought and desertification essay

Sudanese refugees and South Sudanese returnees on a boat journey between Renk to Malakal, South Sudan, November 2023

The war began in the capital, Khartoum; as of this writing, fighting there continues. The SAF has relocated its administrative capital to Port Sudan in the northeast, which is where UN agencies are now based. At the edge of the Red Sea, their convoys wait weeks for travel permissions from the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), which the government set up in the 1980s to control aid delivery. Sometimes the HAC demands five different stamps for an aid convoy to travel outside Port Sudan; often requests aren’t denied but tossed into a black hole of non-response.

In the first ten months of the war some NGOs were able to transport aid across the western border with Chad, which is almost entirely held by the RSF. But this past March the SAF declared that it would only allow aid to enter through its border crossings, effectively denying cross-border movement from Chad altogether. The UN complied, with catastrophic results for Darfur. Conflict and looting reduced harvest yields by as much as 8o percent compared to the previous year. In March an IPC alert showed areas with emergency levels of food insecurity across Darfur’s four states. A WFP spokesperson told us that the famine threshold has not been met, but indicated that 2.6 million people are at high risk of catastrophic levels of food insecurity, and that “we could be seeing famine-like conditions across the country.” However, another WFP official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the UN agency has internally assessed that parts of Darfur are already in famine. In Kalma, an Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp in South Darfur, the aid group Alight reports that four children die each day from malnutrition and related issues, such as diseases caused by weakened immune systems. Humanitarians in Chad told us that Sudanese refugees are fleeing not conflict but hunger. 

The RSF has its own predatory apparatus for controlling aid. Last August its leader, Mohammed Hamdan Daglo (commonly known by the nickname “Hemetti”), formed the Sudan Agency for Relief and Humanitarian Operations (SARHO), a version of the HAC. The RSF has greatly profited from aid delivery: in West Darfur it charges aid workers exorbitant checkpoint fees and forces them to use its trucking companies. Like the SAF, the RSF prevents aid deliveries to enemy-held territory. In March it commandeered the goods on a humanitarian convoy headed to El Fasher, the one city in Darfur not yet under its control. The same month it confiscated WFP food aid heading to the Ronga Tas IDP camp in Central Darfur, sharing the loot among its soldiers and refugees at an RSF-run IDP camp nearby. 

The belligerents have thus ensured that most Sudanese people are cut off from lifesaving aid. WFP’s Executive Director, Cindy McCain, has stated that the organization is able to deliver food to only 10 percent of the population facing emergency levels of food insecurity. The UN’s relief chief, Martin Griffiths, has said in an internal note to the Security Council that the other 90 percent are out of reach.

Sudan is no stranger to war or hunger. Since independence in 1956 there have been three civil wars and at least five famines—the number is contested. In 1988–89, during the second civil war (1983–2005), government-aligned militias rampaged through the southern state of Bahr el Ghazal, poisoning wells, killing farmers, and razing fields in areas held by the rebel movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Half a million people are thought to have died. In 2003–2005, during the conflict in Darfur, state-backed Arab militias known as the Janjaweed (the precursors to the RSF) targeted non-Arab communities, killing over 30,000, displacing millions, and disrupting agricultural cycles, which resulted in a further 200,000 deaths from hunger, disease, and exposure.

These famines, like the wars that triggered them, were localized. Today, hunger and fighting has spread over almost the entire country. Faced with a tragedy of such proportions, it is understandable to focus on pressing challenges like delivering more aid and brokering a cease-fire. But no amount of aid will fix the structural issues underlying Sudan’s chronic food insecurity, and in the absence of major political realignments, a cease-fire is unlikely to bring lasting peace. Understanding the origins of Sudan’s present crisis requires returning to its postcolonial history.

Hunger is not experienced equally across Sudan but gnaws its way through a landscape marked by exploitation and inequality. Since independence, a narrow coterie of Arab elites based in the Nile Valley have controlled the state. Rather than implement policies to equitably develop the country, they have captured government institutions and used them to enrich Sudan’s riparian urban centers (such as Khartoum and its sister cities of Omdurman and Bahri) at the expense of its peripheries (such as Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and Darfur).

This divide is reflected in Sudan’s food system. As the scholars Magdi El Gizouli and Edward Thomas  have shown , the country is split between wheat eaters in the urban centers and sorghum and millet eaters in the peripheries. Wheat is mostly imported; its price can soar during global food price spikes. Sorghum and millet are grown locally; their availability is vulnerable to climactic shocks and conflict. To placate the urban centers, successive regimes have imported and subsidized wheat and bread—subsidies that do not reach rural areas. They have raised the necessary foreign currency by exporting primary resources from the peripheries, such as grains, livestock, gum arabic, oil, and gold. This is the transmutation that turns sorghum into wheat; it’s a magic trick that exploits rural Sudan. 

drought and desertification essay

Hugues de Latude/Sygma/Getty Images

Families waiting for sorghum aid distribution, Sudan, 1985

The dual food system had its origins in postcolonial agricultural policy. On the eve of independence, much of the population was engaged in subsistence agriculture, and a significant number were pastoralists. In the 1960s the government secured credit from the Gulf states and the World Bank to create mechanized agricultural projects in Sudan’s southeast, between Ethiopia and the Nile. These schemes produced sorghum for internal consumption and sesame for export.

In 1969 Gafaar Nimeiri took power in a coup, suspending the constitution and banning the Muslim Brotherhood, which he considered a threat to his power. He pushed a scheme to turn Sudan into a regional “breadbasket.” In 1977 he launched a six-year plan to bring more than six million feddans (6.2 million acres) into cultivation. This project had two goals: to guarantee Sudan’s food security and to produce animal products and grain for export to the Arab world.

The government expropriated plots from subsistence farmers and pastoralists and doled out vast tracts of land—1.8 million feddans by 1968, four million by 1977—to urban merchants who engaged in a kind of agricultural strip-mining. They cultivated monocrops intensely, gouging quick profits for a few years, while causing increased desertification and a rapid deterioration in soil quality. Overexploitation and uncertain rainfall soon led to poor yields, after which the merchants leased the fields back to the landless for sharecropping. In the process more and more peasants and pastoralists were pushed off their land and forced to seek badly compensated seasonal wage labor. By the mid-1970s, between 1.5 and 2 million people were annually migrating to work on mechanized farms whose yields were collapsing. Some still function today, but they do not remotely meet Sudan’s food needs. Over the past six decades, sorghum yields have declined by half.

The breadbasket strategy failed to achieve its grand aims, but it nonetheless benefited the regime. Nimeiri distributed land leases to chosen elites—part of his creation of a political marketplace based on backroom deals. Corruption intensified in 1977, when his erstwhile enemies, the Muslim Brotherhood, returned to the country as part of a “National Reconciliation” process. They brought along Islamic banks that lent on favorable terms to the cadres of the Brotherhood and to Nimeiry’s regime. In 1982 a Military Economic Board was created, allowing the army to extend its influence into the commercial sector, including in agriculture; this enabled Nimeiri to buy off potential dissidents within the armed forces.

The weakness of Sudan’s food system was cruelly exposed in 1983, when a drought contributed to a 75 percent drop in food production in the provinces of North Kordofan, North Darfur, and the Red Sea Hills. After years of deficient harvests, rural households had little to fall back on, leaving them in no position to deal with the crisis. Scarcity drove prices higher; between 1983 and 1985 the cost of sorghum in Kordofan doubled. 

The crisis was exacerbated by Sudan’s high levels of debt. Nimeiri had recklessly borrowed from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Paris Club—a group of major Western creditors. Much of the money had disappeared into the pockets of his confidantes. In the early 1980s, with Sudan on the edge of default, he accepted a series of IMF-imposed austerity measures as a condition of further loans. These funds—along with continued Gulf investment in “breadbasket” schemes—kept his regime afloat, but living standards were worsening by the day. Subsidies for food and fuel were cut and the cost of basic commodities skyrocketed. By the end of 1983 some 300,000 people had fled northern Darfur in search of food.

Nimeiri tried to conceal the impending famine, which would have announced the failure of the breadbasket strategy, threatening Gulf investment and raising doubts among his creditors, notably the United States, which by then was sending more development aid to Sudan than to anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. He hoped that the heavens would save him by bringing good rains the following year. But the drought continued through 1984, with grain production in Kordofan falling to 18 percent of normal yields. Still Nimeiri did not declare a famine and blocked the distribution of food aid. In early 1984 the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that Darfur needed 39,000 tons of food. The government, determined to downplay the crisis, made its own assessment and claimed Darfur needed only seven thousand tons. It didn’t appeal for international assistance and only sent 5,400 tons—which was delivered late. Nimeiri was confident that starvation deaths in the rural peripheries wouldn’t bother Sudan’s urban elite.

Then the famine came to the city. By August 1984 some 45,000 farmers had fled their villages in Kordofan in search of food and arrived in the Khartoum metropolitan area. Nimeiri crammed some into trucks and sent them home, but he couldn’t evade the famine’s consequences forever. By 1985 over five million people had been made destitute, a million and a half had fled their homes, and 105,000 had died in Darfur alone. 

Resistance to Nimeiri’s regime was already widespread. He had banned trade unions and all political parties other than his Potemkin vehicle, the Sudanese Socialist Union, but professional associations and students led protests against the price increases. They demanded an end to his dictatorship and the creation of a parliamentary democracy. His denial of the famine deepened their outrage. On March 25, a few days before he was to depart to Washington to secure more money, he asked in a speech, “Why do the Sudanese need to eat three meals a day?” His remarks were broadcast and heard by millions of starving people. Students in Khartoum protested, chanting, “The people are hungry! Down with the IMF! The World Bank will not rule Sudan!” 

drought and desertification essay

UNICEF/AFP/Getty Images

Displaced civilians waiting for humanitarian aid, Sudan, 1989

Nimeiri nonetheless left for Washington confident that rioting could be repressed. It was a misjudgment. The students joined with the professional associations and members of the clandestine Communist Party, which called for a general strike on April 6. Other banned parties also prepared themselves for action. After Nimeiri gladhanded with Ronald Reagan, who promised more aid, senior army officers deposed him, and a Transitional Military Council (TMC) took control. 

On the eve of Nimeiri’s ouster, civil society groups, trade unions, professional associations, and other political parties formed the National Alliance for National Salvation, which developed a shared agenda: immediate action against the famine, the creation of a parliamentary democracy, and the rollback of the more onerous aspects of Islamic law that Nimeiri had implemented in partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood. This coalition quickly collapsed. While the sectarian parties squabbled among themselves, the TMC exploited differences between the professional groups and the trade unions, sidelining many of their concerns, including their demands for famine relief. After a good harvest in 1985, the TMC announced that the famine was over and ended discussion of reforming the food system. Focused on elections and power in the capital, the political parties dropped the issue. Rural Solidarity—a coalition formed by students and trade unionists active in the uprising—pursued the question of famine in the peripheries for a while, but it was undone by internal divisions and state harassment. 

The TMC handed over famine relief to international aid organizations, which were then expanding across Africa, as nation after nation spiraled into debt. Funded by Western donors, these groups stepped in to fulfill tasks, like famine relief, that governments no longer seemed able or willing to perform. In 1985, in partnership with the UN Emergency Office for Sudan, the TMC established a commission to coordinate relief activities. The United States Agency for International Development was made responsible for distributing famine aid; it assigned different international NGOs to different regions of Sudan. (Save the Children got Darfur, Kordofan went to CARE.) Thereafter the internationals were in charge and the Sudanese state was no longer to blame. Famine was depoliticized. 

A civil war had broken out on the eve of Sudanese independence between the government in Khartoum and southern rebels. Hundreds of thousands were dead by the time it ended in 1972, with a peace agreement that promised regional autonomy and development projects for the south. As the economic crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s took hold, Nimeiri withdrew from these commitments, leaving a landscape littered with half-built schools and waterpipes leading to nowhere. In 1983 the SPLA was founded in the south with the goal of overthrowing Nimeiri and ending oppressive relations between the center and the periphery. For over two decades it fought successive regimes in the north.

The second civil war (1983–2005) led directly to a series of famines. Perhaps the worst occurred between 1985 and 1988 in Greater Bahr el Ghazal, the heartland of the SPLM/A, where state-aligned Murahiliin militias—drawn from Baggara communities in Kordofan and Darfur—targeted rebel water and food sources. The government only allowed food aid into towns it controlled, a policy echoed by the SAF in the current conflict. This forced people living in rural areas to migrate to urban areas, depriving the rebels of recruits. In response, the SPLM/A laid siege to the towns. The tactics of the two sides immiserated huge swathes of Bahr el Ghazal. 

In 1985 Khartoum set up the Humanitarian Aid Commission, which had a mandate to coordinate international aid delivery. The HAC funneled aid to loyalist populations in the north, then repeated the trick in the south. In 1986 62 percent of all aid sent to southern Sudan went to the Equatorian provinces, which constituted only 26 percent of the region’s population, to cultivate them as a counterweight to Bahr el Ghazal. Starvation there forced pastoralists to sell their herds to northern merchants at far below market rates in order to buy food from those same traders, who charged them extortionate prices. Many southerners fled north, where they were robbed by the  Murahiliin  militias and then crowded into camps in territory held by their tormentors, or else forced to work on commercial agricultural projects in Kordofan.

drought and desertification essay

AlexanderJoe/Getty Images

A man unloading food supplies from a UN plane, Narsia, South Sudan, September 1992

In 1989 Colonel Omar al-Bashir and the National Islamic Front came to power in another coup, ousting Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Bashir faced a volatile political situation: the civil war raged in the south and the economy was creaking under foreign debt. In 1989 a drought in western Sudan, exacerbated by government inaction, led to a famine that spread the next year, when the harvest shortfall in Darfur was estimated at 80 percent. Much of Sudan was affected: by then the economic collapse of the prior decade had increased the number of food-insecure people throughout the country.

Like Nimeiri before him, Bashir did not declare a famine, which would have enabled international supplies to flow to the needy. Instead he intensified state control of humanitarian aid, placing the HAC directly under the national intelligence service, and cracked down on dissent. Limited grain supplies were triaged to politically important constituencies; Khartoum remained the priority. To ensure there was no urban unrest, a newly constituted Food Security Council cut off the water supply to the shantytowns on the capital’s outskirts, demolished the shacks of the displaced, and forcibly removed them from the city. The army diverted humanitarian aid from rural areas to the towns, sometimes at gunpoint. Nimeiri’s ouster, prompted by protests in Khartoum, had taught Bashir a lesson: enormous famines could be withstood as long as the cities were fed.

Bashir’s success eventually proved his undoing. Sudan’s hinterlands grew ever more impoverished, forcing thousands to migrate to the cities, which in turn increased the cost of wheat subsidies. These were paid for by a new form of state revenue: petroleum exports. Oil was discovered in southern Sudan as early as the 1970s, but the civil war had brought exploration to an abrupt end. It began again in earnest only in the 1990s, after Khartoum-backed militias had displaced southern populations living in oil-rich areas. In 2005, following American pressure, a peace agreement brought an end to the civil war; it was followed in 2011 by a referendum on southern independence. When South Sudan voted to secede, Sudan lost access to 75 percent of its oil resources, which constituted the majority of its dollar exports.

Bashir frantically tried to reorient the economy, lending agricultural land to Gulf investors, but it wasn’t enough. The final straw was wheat. In 2018, at the behest of the IMF, his regime cut food and fuel subsidies, tripling food prices and triggering protests around the country. Schoolchildren in Blue Nile who could no longer afford bread took to the streets and chanted against the regime. The uprising soon expanded: in Khartoum migrants from the peripheries marched beside the children of the elite, fed up after thirty years of dictatorship. The protesters demanded a new food system, one that would guarantee food security to all citizens. In April 2019, while this discussion was still in its infancy, Bashir was ousted in another coup, led by a fragile alliance between the SAF and the RSF.

A transitional civilian-military government was established, headed by Abdalla Hamdok, an economist and former UN bureaucrat. Rather than honor the protesters’ demands for a new food system, his government oriented itself toward the IMF and World Bank, which demanded cuts to food and fuel subsidies as a condition for debt relief and more loans, which the state desperately needed to stabilize rampant inflation. The plan failed. In December 2020 inflation was at 269 percent; a year later it had risen to 318 percent. A World Bank–backed Family Support Program, intended to deliver cash to poor families, never got off the ground. Wheat tripled in price. In August 2021 alone, sorghum prices rose by 977 percent. This crisis was felt in Khartoum as much as in Blue Nile.

Both the RSF and the SAF feared that a fully civilian government would rein in their many businesses. (During Bashir’s rule each security service built its own economic empire, with interests in gold, real estate, banking, agriculture, and much else.) Seizing the initiative, the military instigated astroturfed demonstrations in Khartoum against Hamdok’s government and protests in the east of the country. In October 2021 Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of the SAF, and Hemetti, the leader of the RSF, took power in an autogolpe. Until then the army had held back supplies of wheat flour; now they mysteriously appeared on the shelves of Khartoum’s shops for a few weeks—a repeat of Bashir’s playbook. 

The new junta made little effort to address Sudan’s hunger crisis, which deepened when international assistance was suspended following the coup. Then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost doubled international wheat prices within a month. By the end of 2022, with Hemetti and Burhan increasingly at loggerheads, the WFP estimated that approximately 15 million people across the country were food-insecure. That year the Sudan Teacher’s Committee conducted a survey of civil-servant wages and found that a teacher’s average income covered only 13 percent of their expenses. High inflation, diminished purchasing power, renewed conflict in Darfur, low food stocks, and erratic rainfall led to soaring food prices and a grain shortfall of 2.75 million tons.

The conflict that broke out in April 2023 is the first civil war to be waged in Sudan’s capital. Khartoum’s residents have fled en masse; its population is estimated to have fallen from six million to one million. Those who can afford it have moved abroad; the rest have escaped to the south, east, and north. At the war’s outset RSF fighters went house to house looting civilian property. Both sides seized humanitarian food stocks. Almost all the international aid workers in the country evacuated, leaving the Sudanese people to fend for themselves. 

They have done so admirably. Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs) and grassroots organizations have set up food kitchens, repaired water resources, and practiced mutual aid. They deliver these services in forbidding conditions. Since Khartoum is divided into zones of control, civilian movement is restricted, making it difficult to access markets. Organizers have no choice but to strike deals with the occupying powers. As in previous civil wars, military forces and business elites have profited from hunger. In many parts of Khartoum, the RSF has positioned itself atop an economy of brokers, smugglers, and illicit traders, who are selling essential commodities at prices three times higher than before the war. 

drought and desertification essay

Volunteers distributing food aid, Gedaref state, Sudan, 2024

drought and desertification essay

Volunteers cooking at a public kitchen, Khartoum, Sudan, 2024

drought and desertification essay

Community members collecting their daily meal rations at a public kitchens, Khartoum, Sudan, 2024

drought and desertification essay

Volunteers preparing lunch at the Shikan communal kitchen, El Obeid, Sudan 2024

From Khartoum the conflict quickly spread west. By the end of November all Darfur’s main cities, except for El Fasher, had fallen to Hemetti’s militia, as the RSF overran the army’s positions and cut its supply lines. SAF’s ground troops, composed of hungry locals, had little incentive to fight for a sclerotic officer corps in Khartoum. In each city, the RSF destroyed state institutions while looting civilian goods and humanitarian resources.

The RSF in Darfur is largely formed of Arab militias, which have used the current war to further a campaign of ethnic cleansing against local non-Arab populations. Just as the Janjaweed did twenty years earlier, the RSF have burned villages, destroyed farmland, and poisoned water walls, displacing or killing Masalit, Fur, and Zaghawa peoples. The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights has  concluded  that these assaults constitute acts of genocide.

In mid-December the war shifted east to the “breadbasket” state of Gezira, which sits to the southeast of Khartoum and is a central zone of Sudanese agricultural production. The RSF rapidly took villages in the north of the state, pillaging markets and homes along the way, before conquering the capital, Wad Medani, with little resistance from the SAF. It has since engaged in industrial-scale looting. The Agricultural Bank was sacked, as was a WFP compound that, according to the UN, contained enough food to feed 1.5 million severely food insecure people for a month. The RSF also ransacked civilian houses and forced farmers to load their crops into waiting vehicles. Many farmers fled. These disruptions contributed to a disastrous harvest. 

The war is now entering a new phase. Since the fall of Wad Medani, the SAF has fought back in Gezira and the Khartoum metropolitan area, assisted by Iranian drones and local defense militias. Another part of SAF’s strategy is to spread the conflict, to stretch the RSF thin and pull its forces away from Khartoum and Gezira. One front is El Fasher, held by non-Arab rebel groups who initially stayed ambiguously neutral, striking an uneasy détente with the RSF. In March, however, the alliance fractured when several former rebel factions joined the SAF to attack the RSF in central Sudan. In retaliation the RSF attacked and burned non-Arab villages around El Fasher, where clashes are now taking place inside the city itself.

The RSF has occupied the nearby town of Mellit, cutting off supply routes into El Fasher. Last month militia assaults destroyed parts of the Abu Shouk IDP camp, in the northwest, home to some 100,000 people; the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab  reports  that the RSF has beaten, tortured, and killed civilians there. Two health centers have already closed; incoming aid trucks meet only 2 percent of the city’s food needs. El Fasher is being starved to death.

The two warring parties are of course primarily to blame for the current catastrophe. But the UN’s decisions have only made matters worse—above all its choice to defer to the SAF for authorization. Legally, UN agencies are beholden to the nation-states in which they operate. In Sudan, though, there is no sovereign state: the SAF lost all constitutional authority upon its coup in 2021, after which the country was suspended from the African Union. In any case, the army barely controls half of Sudan. 

What then explains the UN’s deference? It likely originates in Burhan’s decision last December to abruptly terminate its political mission, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, which he claimed was interfering in the country’s sovereign affairs. Privately, officials have told us they fear that UN agencies will meet the same fate if they disobey the SAF. 

As of June the SAF has allowed only two cross-border WFP aid convoys to come in from Tina, a town in the far east of Chad—the one crossing it controls. It still prevents aid from coming through RSF-held areas of the border, and UN agencies remain beholden to its decisions.

drought and desertification essay

Sudanese refugees crossing the border with South Sudan, November 2023

Yet the UN has more leverage than it wants to acknowledge. In meetings we’ve had with humanitarians in regional capitals, the prevailing sentiment is that the World Food Programme is too big to expel, since the SAF relies on it to supply food to territories it controls, which would otherwise be immiserated, threatening support for the army. Some international donors and NGOs have increased pressure on the UN to call the SAF’s bluff. Indeed, several NGOs have been doing cross-border operations since the war began, which suggests the UN can as well. 1

Meanwhile the UN’s agencies, based in Port Sudan, are paying the SAF sizable administrative fees and rents. Bureaucratic obfuscation is a lucrative industry. The SAF earns money from its endless permits and often owns the residences in which the humanitarian workers stay and the trucking companies they use for convoys. Many of the agencies’ local staff, internationals have privately told us, also work for the SAF. 

The best possible humanitarian plan would be for the UN to move its center of operations from Port Sudan to a regional capital such as Nairobi, outside the SAF’s control. The UN would then establish cross-border hubs in Chad and South Sudan, which would each negotiate directly with local forces, including the RSF. Another purely administrative distribution hub could be located in Port Sudan, for aid going into SAF-controlled territory. The UN might be expelled for cross-border operations. But that remains unlikely, given the needs of those in SAF areas and the dire economic situation in the country more generally. 

This is a minimal requirement, not a panacea. The RSF will be as challenging to work with as the SAF. Both belligerents want to divert aid to loyal constituents and block it from reaching their opponents, while coercing payments from humanitarian agencies. They are likely to find some success in these endeavors. But then humanitarianism is always an ethically complicated business. 

On June 11 the US special envoy to Sudan, Tom Perriello, told  Reuters  that “we know we are in famine.” Yet the UN has not yet declared as much. Several humanitarians have told us that the organization is “waiting for the IPC,” which is currently undertaking an assessment, its first since October, in collaboration with the SAF, which has obvious incentives to delay such an announcement. There is no formal reason, however, why the WFP cannot unilaterally declare a famine, which would likely lead to more humanitarian funding and increase pressure on the SAF to grant humanitarians access to RSF-held areas.

Absent a sudden change in policy, Sudan might become the second ruinous UN failure in Africa this decade. In June there was a comprehensive interagency evaluation of the UN-led humanitarian response in northern Ethiopia, the site of a civil war from 2020 to 2023. After years of tension between the Tigray region and the Ethiopian regime of Abiy Ahmed, the war pitted the Tigray People’s Liberation Front against government forces working together with the Eritrean army. Both sides committed massacres; the government put Tigray under siege. Over 500,000 people died, mainly due to hunger and malnutrition-related diseases. The interagency evaluation describes how the UN acquiesced to restrictions on access imposed by Abiy’s government and failed to coordinate its operations coherently. Some 7,700 tons of food aid were diverted to the Ethiopian state and into markets, leading the US, the WFP’s major donor, to pause all financial assistance for five months. The humanitarian response, the evaluation concluded, was a systematic failure. In Sudan, UN agencies beholden to the SAF risk falling into the same trap. 

A year into the war, Sudan is increasingly militarized. Facing an acute shortage of infantry, the SAF has armed local communities. For its part, the RSF has expanded dramatically and is struggling to control the forces it has unleashed. Across the country, the war has supercharged ethnic divisions over land and power. In South and West Kordofan, conflict between Arab and non-Arab groups is increasingly disconnected from the battle over Khartoum. Foreign powers are also involved. The SAF has allied with Egypt, Iran, and Russia; the RSF with the United Arab Emirates. 

The Biden administration has made a cynical calculation in Sudan. “What you have to understand,” a senior US official told one of us in April, “is that, from the perspective of policy, Sudan is in the Gulf, not in Africa.” In other words, securing a cease-fire in Sudan is less important than keeping the UAE on America’s side: against Iran and with Israel. Thus far the US has not put meaningful pressure on the UAE to cut support to the RSF. It has, however, supported a peace process in Jeddah, in which neither belligerent has shown any interest—effectively as a sop to the Saudi regime.

This war could last for decades, and it is unlikely that the country will be put back together. There is no longer a state to speak of. Sudanese friends talk of a nation of fragments, run by different armed groups. International diplomatic efforts have yet to accept this reality. Instead they dream of a return to the transitional government of 2021, before the coup, with a civilian-led administration amenable to IMF diktats. This is why Hamdok, who has no legitimacy in Sudan, has been serenaded with funds and support by Norway, the UK, and the US. “Forget Khartoum,” an exiled friend told us. “Hamdok cannot even walk through the streets of Cairo without being decried.” 

It is easy to forget that hunger in Sudan has a long political history. Droughts might have provoked food insecurity, but governments cause famines. For six painful decades the country’s postcolonial rulers have weaponized hunger, choosing a select few to live and leaving the rest to die. The work of the ERRs and other grassroots organizations suggest another political vision for the food system: one that addresses needs before debts, places people above export markets, and takes as its sovereign principle that no one should go hungry. For such a system to be realized at a national level, at the scale required by the famine, is today unthinkable.

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Joshua Craze is finishing a book for Fitzcarraldo Editions about war and bureaucracy in Sudan and South Sudan. (June 2024)

Kholood Khair is the founder and director of Confluence Advisory. (June 2024)

Raga Makawi is a Sudanese editor and researcher based in London. (June 2024)

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  1. Essay on Land Restoration, Desertification, and Drought Resilience

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