text size: smaller reset larger



Out of dust and sand

Two thirds of Africa is desert or drylands
Two thirds of Africa is desert or drylands

Desertification is a complex phenomenon, adversely affecting the lives and livelihoods of over 2 billion people living in drylands that cover 40 per cent of the earth's surface. Human activities such as overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices, along with climate change, are turning once fertile soils into unproductive and barren patches of land. Desertification is both a cause and consequence of poverty and in desertified areas poor people - especially those dependent on agriculture - are hardest hit.

Topsoil takes millennia to form, but can be destroyed within a decade. An estimated 24 billion tons are blown or washed away each year, which means that the world's soil is being lost at least 16 times faster than it can be replaced. According to the UN, an estimated six million hectares of productive land are lost every year and the increase in degraded land results in famine, insecurity, social tension and mass migration. But desertification has its greatest impact in Africa. Two thirds of the continent is desert or drylands and much of the area used for agriculture is already degraded to some degree. On a global scale, soil erosion and land degradation costs billions of dollars each year - but more to reverse.

In China for example, desertification is costing the country an estimated US$6.5 billion each year. Twenty seven per cent of the country's land mass is said to be desertified with almost 400 million people living in these areas. Sand and dust storms threaten the north-western provinces, and melting glaciers are increasing desertification along the Qinghai - Tibet plateau. In April this year, storms in the northern part of China swept 330,000 tonnes of fine sand and dust into Beijing. China: A vast land being swallowed exposes some of the problems the country is encountering, and how it intends to reverse them.

Economic growth has also had adverse effects on the environment in Central Asia. Although Kazakhstan is one of the world's largest grain producers and exporters, large-scale irrigation projects have severely affected water resources. The Aral Sea level has declined more than 50 feet since 1960 due to the large amount of water diverted for irrigation of cash crops. In Mitigating desertification in Central Asia, new satellite technology is providing data on water availability. Can it navigate a difficult political situation and ethnic rivalry, to discover more effective ways of using land and water resources?

In western Kenya, more than half of the land along the Lake Victoria plains has been abandoned as a result of lost nutrients in the soil
In western Kenya, more than half of the land along the Lake Victoria plains has been abandoned as a result of lost nutrients in the soil

For farmers in Kano in Northern Nigeria, making the most of resources is essential to survival. The soil is dusty and water resources are minimal, but farmers have been adapting to these arid conditions. Thriving in the Sahel explores how farmers can keep the deserts in check, and at the same time, improve the quality and quantity of their produce. With support, farmers can invest in systems to reduce their vulnerability. Their efforts are contributing to what has become known as the 'greening' of the Sahel. The initiatives are low tech - and nothing goes to waste.

It is an astonishing fact that in western Kenya, more than half of the land along the Lake Victoria plains has been abandoned as a result of lost nutrients in the soil. The shift from a healthy eco-system to unproductive land, can happen relatively quickly. Scientists at the World Agroforestry Center have come up with a variety of technologies to analyse soil degradation using infra-red technology. But at US$75,000 for one machine - is the technology worth it? The future is infra-red looks at the opportunities ahead for predicting soil damage.

Even though new technology such as this is exciting, one of the most important aspects of any initiative is that farmers can use the information effectively. In Namibia, farmers in six locations are using a new approach to improve their know-how. Using the Forum for Integrated Resource Management approach, farmers are gathering data and information relevant to their local context. They are better equipped to detect any patterns or trends in the state of the environment. A 'FIRM' approach looks at how these farmers are taking the lead to plan for their future.

The Masaai in Kitengela, Kenya, are also leading the way in a new approach to land management. Pastoral or nomadic communities have long been accused of causing land degradation and desertification. But because they traditionally move from one area to another, most pastoral communities strike a balance with their surroundings. As the population expands, the capital of Nairobi sprawls onto Masaai Land threatening wildlife and livestock movement. Crossing the Line discovers a way that the Masaai are reclaiming their land, to live in harmony with wildlife, and give the land a chance to restore itself.

Date published: July 2006


Have your say


The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.
Read more