Hope in the desertified soil

A plant is only as healthy as its soil. So what happens when the soil is sick? What happens when the soil is so sick that it isn’t even soil anymore? This is desertification, “the process by which fertile land becomes desert,”(ACCIONA) and it’s happening all over the world. Desertification is caused by a combination of social, political, economic, and natural factors which vary from region to region and is “almost always the result of multiple interacting causes” (IPEBS). So let’s talk about some of those causes.

This map shows desertification vulnerability on a global scale. Credit.
  1. Climate change

Climate change has caused land surfaces to “warm by an average of approximately 1.4F” (USDA). As the greenhouse effect increases warming in the carbon cycle, it worsens extreme weather events like wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts and affects annual rainfall patterns. Just like these natural disasters and the changes in our water cycle have negative effects on people, they also have negative effects on soil.

This July 2018 dust storm in Arizona is an example of worsened extreme weather events caused by global warming. Credit.
  1. Soil erosion

This is the displacement of the top and fertile layer of soil, typically through some force of nature like wind or rain and exacerbated by activities including plowing, grazing, or deforestation. This is also a side effect of the increased natural disasters that result from climate change.

  1. Unhealthy farming practices

Farming practices such as deforestation, overgrazing of livestock, over-cultivation of crops, overuse of fertilizers, and inappropriate irrigation can all lead to desertification. Many of these techniques are used because they provide economic benefits and because of the large social pressure to provide for a growing population. However, these practices have short lived benefits and ultimately lead to environmental deterioration including desertification.

Aerial photo showing the effects of deforestation in Haiti versus the Dominican Republic. Credit.

So why should we care if some soil turns to desert? Desertification poses one of the greatest environmental challenges today and constitutes a major barrier to meeting basic human needs. There is a major connection between a degraded environment and human poverty including food access, financial insecurity, and health impacts such as respiratory illness, malnutrition, and lack of health care. In fact, desertification and land degradation causes a $42 billion USD loss in earnings each year (UNCCD).

Now I know that the list of current climate disasters can leave most people feeling powerless, paralyzed, and depressed. But here’s the good news; there are tested, creative, and hopeful methods for restoration and prevention of desertification!

Just as there are “multiple interacting causes” for desertification, there are also “multiple interacting” solutions. In order to promote prevention over rehabilitation, these solutions require management and policy approaches that incentivize sustainable resources. While these changes take place, there are also more hands on, accessible methods for restoration. 

  1. Native and natural vegetation cover

Replanting native species as a vegetation cover can act as an anchor for soil to hold on to and reduce erosion. As an added benefit these reintroduced plants are good for carbon sequestration and a crucial step in changing the feedback loop of global warming.

The Loess Plateau in China, one of the largest successful restoration projects in the world, used native and natural vegetation cover to restore biodiversity to the landscape. Credit.
  1. Soil science

Understanding the chemical composition and microbial communities that make up soil also gives an understanding of how our agricultural practices affect soil. 

  1. Sustainable agricultural practices

Returning to traditional agricultural practices that prioritize soil health such as agroforestry, no or low till farming, companion planting, and cover cropping will allow the soil to continue to heal and maintain its top soil.

  1. Policies and initiatives 

Having guidelines for land use and management, creating nation wide/ global concern, and continuing education and action will all play an important role in the prevention and rehabilitation of desertification.

  1. Cultural connection

When people find identity in the land and come together for restoration, it can lead to local empowerment that has ripple effects which lead to human and natural flourishing.

These methods have all been used in successful rehabilitation projects around the world including The Great Green Wall Initiative in Africa, the Greening the Desert project in the deserts of Jordan, and the Hope in a Changing Climate project on the Loess Plateau in China.

There is also work being done in New Mexico through the New Mexico Healthy Soil Working Group and NMDA’s Healthy Soil Program.

Seeing the value of investment in the recovery of damaged and desertified environments has the ability to create jobs, boost local economies, create global concern and action, and unify countries. Understanding the natural capital of desertification management and restoration opens the door for carbon sequestration, increased biodiversity, recognition of traditional agricultural practices, and adding to climate change solutions. In other words, there is hope in the desertified soil.  

Continued Learning:

    • U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification gives examples of how different countries are approaching the issue of desertification
    • Carbon Brief provides a continued explanation of desertification and the role of climate change)
    • Green Fact poses and suggests answers for “further thinking” questions
    • Kiss The Ground documentary (available on Netflix) gives a thorough explanation of desertification causes and solutions

-Posted by Rachael

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