June 17 – World Day to Combat Desertification

Posted on June 17, 2016

As you may already have guessed, “desertification” doesn't have anything to do with turning things into yummy sweet desserts. Instead, it means turning land into deserts.

Deserts, as I am sure you know, can be cold or hot, low-lying or high-altitude, but what makes them deserts is that they are generally very dry. In some deserts, the very infrequent rains that occur all come at once in violent downpours that cause flash floods. That means that most of the water falling on the land doesn't get to seep into the land and add to an underground water table—but instead rushes off to other places. Some deserts are dotted with oases, places with underground springs and therefore a riot of plant and animal life.

Most deserts are home to quite a few animals and plants that have adapted to living in dry places, but life is more sparse – more spaced out. It is harder to grow crops in deserts, although irrigation channels or underground pipes can bring needed water from far away rivers and reservoirs. It is harder to raise animals in deserts, although again ranchers can ship in food and water to supplement whatever is there in the environment.

Basically, we humans don't particularly want MORE deserts. Even though they can be unbelievably beautiful, it's hard to live in the desert.

But some things that people do cause more deserts or desertlike lands to form! How is that possible?

When people chop down forests, the fertile soil that used to be held by tree roots quickly erodes away, the cycles of life from the fallen leaves and insects and decomposers are disrupted or eliminated, and rainfall runs off faster. The productivity of the land can be so diminished that desertlike land is created even if rainfall levels don't change, but rainfall levels often do change because trees are an important part of the water cycle!

The same thing can happen when people farm poorly and eliminate all the minerals and organic materials from the soil, or when people overgraze land. When soil chemistry is changed, its ability to hold water is also changed.

Also, as you may have guessed, global climate change can create deserts where their used to be rich farmland or lively forests, because weather patterns are changed.

What happens when lands go through desertification is a whole slew of bad things. Naturally, the plants, animals, and other organisms that make up the old ecosystem are lost, but also people are no longer able to use their land either to grow and raise their own food nor to produce food to sell. When people can no longer feed their families, they migrate to urban areas or even to other nations. More than half of the world's refugees are fleeing lands degraded by desertification!

I live in the U.S. There is quite a bit of talk in my country about “illegal aliens” – people coming to the U.S. from Mexico without the usual legal paperwork. It turns out that many of the illegal immigrants are fleeing badly degraded lands. According to the Natural Heritage Institute, about 60% of Mexico can be considered degraded!

How can people prevent or reverse desertification? 

  • Finally, check out the U.N. website on World Day to Combat Desertification. 

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