Desertification: Definition, consequences and challenges

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As a result of inadequate agricultural practices and global warming, there is increasingly more land losing its biological, productive and financial potential and being degraded, a phenomenon known as desertification. In this article, we look into what desertification is, what its causes and consequences are and how to act against this phenomenon.

What is desertification and why is it a problem?

According to article 1 of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the desertification definition is the natural phenomenon which refers to the degradation of arid land areas, semi-arid land, and sub-humid drylands resulting from various factors such as climatic variations and human activity. Due to climatic variations and human activity, deterioration of vegetation can occur, as well as soil erosion and population migrations.

What is the difference between desert places and desertification?Deserts are naturally occurring places that are very dry, have low sporadic rainfall, and seasonal high temperatures. Desertification is the process of productive or arable land being degraded into desert-like conditions largely due to human activity.

Causes of desertification

Although there are numerous causes of desertification, almost all are attributable to man and inadequate agricultural practices. Some of the human causes of desertification include:

  • Deforestation;
  • Over exposure of the earth and excessive grazing of livestock (excessively exploiting vegetable resources of a surface);
  • The absence of fallow land in the farmland cycle, which doesn’t allow agricultural land to replenish itself;
  • The depletion of the water table;
  • Mining.

The natural causes of desertification are all extreme climate phenomena related to climate change (recurrent droughts, lack of rain, soil erosion, etc.) worsened by global warming, which is a result of greenhouse gas emissions linked to human activity, meaning humans are directly responsible.

These causes have a devastating impact on the environment, on society and on the economy. In fact, desertification threatens biodiversity and puts populations at risk, as more than two billion people depend on the ecosystems of drylands. It degrades their quality of life: the land becomes unusable and diseases and famines appear. According to the United Nations, 50 million people could be displaced in the next 10 years due to desertification.

Impacts of desertification
Environmental consequences Socioeconomic consequences
  • Soil depletion;
  • Degradation of ecosystems and biodiversity;
  • Decrease in the capacity of carbon storage in the earth and increased global warming;
  • Water scarcity and shortages.
  • Increased poverty;
  • Degrading quality of life;
  • Food insecurity;
  • Inequality in access to natural resources;
  • Population migrations;
  • Geopolitical challenges.

The current pandemic linked to Covid-19 is a reminder that land degradation favours the appearance of infectious diseases of animal origin, with disastrous socioeconomic consequences on a global scale.

Examples of desertification

Desertification is a probleam that affects every region of the world. As human activity is turning drylands into desert across the planet, there are huge consequences on the environment, livlihoods and ways of life. In this section, we'll look at examples of desertification in various places around the world.

Where is desertification happening?Currently, the regions most affected by desertification are the Sahel Region in Western Africa, China and Australia.

Desertification in the UK

While it may not be immediately obvious, desertification does indeed have an impact in the UK. Intensive farming practices such as deep ploughing and short turnaround periods mean agricultural soils are being degraded. Wind and heavy rainfall also plays its part in the declining quality of the land in which to grow plants and crops.


Unless more is done to reverse the impact of climate change, the UK will see warmer and drier summers, leading to drier soil conditions. Areas of the country that are heavily reliant on agriculture, such as East Anglia or Cornwall, could be impacted in a negative way, and the UK will need to make use of imported goods instead.

A key issue in the UK however is that of deforestation. Trees play a vital role in creating a stable environment as they store carbon dioxide (CO2) that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere. According to, the UK has just 13% of forest cover, one of the lowest amounts in Europe. The Government has already confirmed plans to restore more than 500,000 hectares of forest, meadows and wetlands by 2043.

Desertification in Africa

Desertification is one of the key issues facing Africa as a continent. Indeed, should solutions not be found, millions of people could be forced to leave their livelihoods behind as the land becomes unlivable and unworkable.

Research carried out by the UN and other aid agencies have looked at highlighting the mountain that faces Africa when it comes to desertification and land degradation:

  • Around 20,000 hectares of land is lost every year due to desertification. Around 70% of the land in Ethiopia is prone to it, and up to 80% in Kenya;
  • 319 million hectares of Africa are vulnerable to desertification because of sand movement. In semi-arid areas of West Africa, the desert is expanding by about 5km per year;
  • Every year, Africa loses around 280 million tonnes of cereal crops from 105 million hectares of cropland.

Sahel desertificationThe Sahel is a region spanning North Africa - just below the Sahara desert - that is particularly prone to drought because of low rainfall. A combination of over-farming and natural factors have led to the topsoil drying out, making crop growing increasingly difficult. With that comes poverty, hunger, and migration of populations. In 2007, the heads of state of the countries affected (Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and Chad) launched the Great Green Wall project - a plan to restore 8,000km of trees and vegetation. When complete, it will become the largest living structure on the planet, and provide food and job security for millions of people.

Desertification in China

Desertification has been a huge problem in China too, where estimates by the World Bank suggest more than a quarter of the population is affected by the issue. In the Ningxia Hui region, overgrazing of vegetation saw the continued erosion of topsoil. By 2010, more than 55% of the land was vulnerable to desertification, and the region’s three million inhabitants frequently saw sandstorms and dust storms.

Similar to what is happening in the Sahel, the government made the decision to put in place desertification measures, plant shrubs and trees, and make the land usable again. This process took place between 2012 and 2020, and some remarkable results occurred, such as:

  • Vegetation restoration and natural regeneration saw 32,500 hectares of land being restored;
  • Vegetation cover increased by 28% and along with it, a greater variety of vegetation;
  • More than 8,000 jobs were created - examples include forestry workers having to tend to plants and trees;
  • The number of days lost to windblown sand was reduced by 25% - from 12 to 9.

Source: World Bank.

How to stop desertification?

In their 2019 report on climate change, desertification and soil degradation, sustainable management of land, food security and greenhouse gas flows in land ecosystems, the IPCC drew attention to the essential role of the earth in climate systems. For this reason, desertification is one of the biggest challenges for sustainable development.

Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss.

Objective 15; Sustainable ecosystems on earth

The objective is to fight desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and flooding and try to become a world without land degradation by 2030.

Every 17th of June, the United Nations celebrates the Global Day to Combat Desertification and Drought with the aim of raising awareness about the initiatives which are taking place to fight these phenomena.

Some solutions which could lead to a reduction in desertification include

  • Fighting deforestation, excessive grazing and excessive farming;
  • The development of renewable energies (solar, wind and biogas) to replace wood as a source of fuel;
  • Protecting biodiversity;
  • Improved water management;
  • Participation and education of local populations;
  • Reforestation and regeneration of trees through organisations such as Rewilding Britain or the Woodland Trust.

The Gandhi Project at Selectra

carbon footprint

Since 2019, Selectra has been offering individuals the opportunity to invest in renewable energy and combat climate change by off-setting their carbon emissions through financing a wind farm in India: The Gandhi Project.

In fact, the majority of energy in India comes from burning coal, which is highly pollutant. Therefore, financing the Gandhi project means not only participating in the energy transition in India, but also educating and raising awareness regarding climate change through the creation of schools and funding of scholarships.

Discover more practical guides regarding the protection of the environment and the fight against climate change.