The desertification of our planet is getting worse.  Slowly and maybe inevitably encroaching on more communities; threatening more food production and damaging more agricultural potential.  It may not grab the headlines with the same dramatic impact as flooding, wildfires or rising sea levels, but be under no illusion: desertification is one of the gravest environmental dangers facing our society and life on Earth.

So, what exactly is it?  Desertification is, essentially, land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, which are known as drylands.  This can occur as a result of many factors, including human activities and climate.  Drylands currently cover a little over 46% the Earth’s area and are home to around 3 billion people.[1]

The damage caused by desertification results from two separate, but linked, processes: one is the process of existing deserts expanding to infringe onto new areas; the second, faster and man-made one, is the loss of fertility and soil resilience caused by human activity and accelerated climate change, turning once fertile areas into deserts.

Existing deserts are expanding in Africa and Asia.  Temperate areas of southern Europe, especially Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Bulgaria and Romania[2], are becoming arid as temperatures increase and rainfall lessens.  The UN estimates that five billion hectares of soil has been degraded by human activity[3].  And without a concerted effort, this figure will only increase.

The Aridity Index (AI) of an area is defined by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as the ratio between the average rainfall it receives over a year and the potential evapotranspiration – the amount of water it will lose in evaporation[4].  An AI of less than 0.65 means that an area is designated as dryland.  Lower and it can become dry sub-humid, semi-arid, arid and ultra-arid.

As AI is a ratio, two factors can decrease it: reduced rainfall and degradation of the soil. As soil degrades, its ability to retain water is damaged, increasing the amount it loses to the air.

The main cause of this creeping threat?  Climate change.  The total global amount of rainfall has increased in the last century, but at the same time, rising temperatures have resulted in greater evaporation[5].  In conjunction with local causes and direct human activity decreasing the land’s ability to hold onto water, the world’s AI is on a downward trend.

Clearing an area, especially felling trees, for livestock, agriculture or development, means the soil is no longer bound together with plant roots.  It breaks apart, giving up its moisture to the Sun.  An uncontrolled excess of grazing animals on the cleared land, their hooves breaking up the soil and their appetites killing the remaining plants, will damage the earth’s water-retaining qualities even further.

Building on, or paving over, land disrupts the drainage and stops water from escaping underground.  Growing single monoculture crops and the overuse of weedkiller, leaving the soil bare after harvests, and clearing agricultural crop stubble with fire, all exacerbate poor water retention by the soil.

In addition to the immediate loss of agricultural capacity and wildlife habitat, losing land to desert further exacerbates overall climate change drivers, entering a vicious circle of environmental loss.  As sand takes over from fertile planted soil, the ability of that area to absorb carbon diminishes.  Sequestered carbon stored in decomposed plants is released more quickly as the soil dries out, and there is no new plant life to absorb it, resulting in a double blow for the climate.

All these factors and activities have left our planet with a problem: very large areas of land that people and animals depend on for their food and livelihoods, are becoming unlivable.  On their own, they will not recover as new plants cannot take hold in the arid ground.  Action must be taken if we are to prevent this problem from becoming a disaster.

A lesson from China?

The history of the Ningxia Hui region of China demonstrates the dangers of desertification[6].  Almost completely surrounded by the vast Tenggeli, Wulanbu and Maowusu deserts, Ningxia is a pocket of grasslands, historically grazed by livestock and supporting some viniculture.  The land provides food, export income and livelihoods for the people living there.

Around the beginning of the 21st Century, it became clear that Ningxia’s green fields were in danger of disappearing altogether.  

At the sand’s high point in 2010, 55% of the area was affected by desertification, almost 3 million hectares of land.  

Farming was severely affected, and the Yellow River became polluted with silt from the failing soil, reducing water quality downstream and increasing the risk of flooding.  

Devastating sandstorms swept across northern China causing millions of dollars in property and crop damage as there was nothing standing in the way of the wind.

The World Bank estimated that three million people suffered directly from the loss of land quality[7].  The economic effects were so harsh that more than 80% of the people in poverty in China were in Ningxia.

Political instability

The Tengger Desert in Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. (Photo Credit: © IC)

Desertification is not only a problem for our ecosystem, but also a pressing political and business issue. 

Around two billion people live in areas at risk from desertification.  If no action is taken, 50 million could be displaced by degradation of soil by 2030[8], just eight years away.  Land that has become desert is far less able to support agriculture.  

The people who depended on it slip into poverty and food insecurity and cannot take action to improve their circumstances alone.  

Eventually their position becomes impossible, the poor land requiring more resources than they can afford to give it, and they must migrate to survive.

These people are not economic migrants by choice but ‘environmental refugees’, fleeing from a man-made disaster they have no control over.  So far, the rest of the world has been able to absorb relatively large movements of people but if desertification continues the strain will begin to show.  Without effective, prompt action, the situation appears to be bleak, but human ingenuity is being applied to the problem, and is finding success.

The solution at Ningxia

In a project supported by the UN and the World Bank between 2012 and 2020, key areas in Ningxia Hui were protected by the planting of diversified indigenous grasses and shrubs in patterns designed to maximize their effect on the soil, supported by ecologically responsible water management structures.  Grazing was limited to protect development without harming local farming business.

The degradation of soil was quickly halted and has been reversed in many areas, with tens of thousands of hectares seeing improvement where before they seemed to be irreversibly spiraling towards ultra-aridity.  Water quality improvements in the Yellow River alone have been calculated by the World Bank to have saved the Chinese Government more than US$ 200 million in clean-up costs[9], many times the amount spent on the project.

Farmers in Ningxia Hui plant grasses to stabilize the sand. (Photo Credit: © World Bank).

Changes to farming methods, soil-conscious planting schemes and water management have turned Ningxia Hui from a region on the brink of disaster into an example of hope.  Later studies have shown that the reclaimed land in Ningxia is sustainable[10] and the trend towards desertification has been reversed[11].  How can the same success be exported to other regions?

Partnership vital to success

In the past, the problems caused by desertification were largely seen as a concern only for NGOs, charities and governments.  But increasingly, the private sector is recognizing the threat from desertification – and how it can play role in finding solutions. 

Disruption of markets, supply chains and workforces are problems in purely financial terms as well as socially, and any company that plans for its future will do everything it can to prevent them.  That makes working to prevent climate change and preserve the soil a business positive, rather than an optional extra.  The key to helping the planet lies in in corporate balance sheets as much as it does in the social consciences of business people.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification[12] is a statement of intent to lead the worldwide fight against the spread of existing deserts and the creation of new ones due to increasing aridity of land.  

Established in 1994, it brings together 196 countries and the EU in a joint initiative to manage and restore the world’s land.  This decade, 2021-30, is the UN Decade of Environment Restoration[13], the centerpiece of which is the drive to halt and reverse the process of desertification.

Governments, NGOs and, crucially, businesses all over the world are partners in the UN Decade of Environment Restoration. 

Nowhere is the effect of the campaign better felt than along the path of the Great Green Wall project.  Planned as an 8,000 km line of woodland across the width of the Sahel region of northern Africa, the Great Green Wall will act as a bulwark against desert expansion along the southern side of the Sahara, restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, sequester 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million jobs in rural areas[14].

Reforestation projects such as this are all-important in the fight against deforestation and, ultimately, desertification, but the agencies involved, such as Tree Aid, an international NGO, know that simply planting trees with no further development or management will not achieve their objectives.  Tree roots are the largest single factor in halting the degradation of soil and therefore the desertification of a region, but they cannot work alone, and invasive non-native tree species can bring problems of their own, such as imported species of pests and novel plant diseases.

The Great Green Wall project. Photo Credit: © UNCCD

For the Great Green Wall – and other reforestation initiatives like it – to be more than a token gesture, programs must adapt their plans to the local sites they work in, using local types of grasses and herbaceous plants around the trees.  This ensures the plants will thrive as they are suited to local conditions, provides habitats for existing wildlife and wild grazing for livestock in appropriate numbers, encouraging new growth.

The sustainable solution is not only about planting trees and plants, however.  It is also about training local people in their care and management, spreading knowledge and understanding, improving skills and education and improving opportunities, while also solving the immediate problems at hand.

In the Great Green Wall, local businesses, established by local people and equipped by the program’s partners, carry out the work and are employed to tend the plants as they grow.  Tree Aid acts as a conduit for knowledge gained by business on the ground, spreading good practice to their other partners, increasing project success and associated economic prosperity by listening to the people they are helping.  Farming communities benefit from the improvements to their soil and access to water.  The income provided by the ability to grow food and keep animals increases the power of the people most affected by desertification to work against it.

Power of the private sector

Responsible water management, the use of water-efficient devices such as washing machines and lavatories, the recycling and treatment of waste water and strict limits on river pollution, along with technological direct solutions such as desalination, can ensure more plentiful supplies of water to even the most arid areas without placing unsustainable strains on local ecosystems[15].

Some parts of the process require larger investment in technology, and this is where businesses have a key role to play in areas such as water management.  Where water is scarce, either through natural conditions, recent changes due to climate change or the inability of degraded soil to hold on to moisture, it must be imported.  

Pipelines are an option, but they are expensive and inflexible.  Desalination plants, on the other hand, have been creating pure, clean water for drinking and irrigation for decades and, particularly with recent advances and investment in green desalination technologies, could be a truly green way of contributing, even in a small way, to the solution.

Shuqaiq 3 IWP, on the Red Sea Coast of Saudi Arabia’s Jizan Province, an US$ 800m investment providing 450m3/day.

I’m proud to say that Abdul Latif Jameel is already a major player in the desalination industry that could play an important role in anti-desertification efforts.  Through our pioneering water business, Almar Water Solutions, part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy and Environmental Services, it supplies 3.5 million people across the globe with pure drinking water[16], including its landmark facility at Shuqaiq 3, in Saudi Arabia.

The Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab at MIT (J-WAFS) is also undertaking pioneering work in this area.  For example, a J-WAFS funded research team in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, led by Amos Winter, Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, are using an engineering and design approach to design efficient drip-irrigation technologies to be used in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Meanwhile another J-WAFS team, led by Stephen Graves, Professor of Management Science at the Sloan School of Management, and Bishwapriya Sanyal, Professor of Urban Development and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies, has been investigating irrigation technology in Senegal and barriers to adoption from a supply chain and policy perspective. 

Similarly, the problem of desertification is one of the areas of focus of the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action, which works with a wide range of partners, including communities in East Africa, to bring together data, science and practice for food-secure and resilient lives and livelihoods in drylands worldwide

Hope for the future

At present, the world’s deserts are still growing, and soil is still degrading faster than it is being restored.  Desertification is an imminent problem that requires an urgent response.

Thanks to pioneering work in China and elsewhere, combined with the international drive to address the issue, a solution to the problem is visible.  

Indigenous planting; care for the soil and water management carried out by local people looking after the land that gives them life has been shown to reverse the effects of previous mismanagement and climate change.  The process brings income and independence to areas that had before been slipping, seemingly irreversibly, into poverty.

Awareness of this problem is rising.  Understanding is advancing and the political will is growing.  We need to work together to build on these positive foundations, bringing together the leadership, resources and technologies to halt the spread of the sand. 

















Cartoon image illustrated by Graeme MacKay