Reversing Desertification: The Progress so Far
Desertification, or land degradation coupled with biodiversity loss, ecological deterioration, disturbances of natural resources, poverty, and societal problems, is a major issue around the world. The causes of desertification are complex, with social, political, economic, and environmental problems interacting to create a seemingly irreversible issue. But is desertification really such an unmanageable problem? Many of the most affected countries worldwide don’t think so, and are putting forth their best efforts to improve their land, and therefore the lives of their people.
One of these countries is Niger, an area plagued by quickly expanding deserts and extreme poverty. In the past, trees were removed from farm plots in order to free up space for crops. This is one of the reasons desertification became so much of an issue, and it is also a habit farmers are working to end. Instead of removing saplings from their land, farmers nurture them, allowing them to grow, fix nitrogen in the soil, drop leaves during the season which in turn fertilizes plots, and provide additional resources to supplement meager incomes. By selling branches, pods, fruit, firewood, and bark, farmers can bring in an additional $300 a year. This economic benefit, along with the environmental benefits of growing on restored land, has allowed many families to survive harsh droughts, and even send their children to school instead of working the fields.
The issues Niger faces illustrate one of the major contributors to desertification: modern and industrial agriculture. Although farming in Niger is not as industrialized as other nations, it shares the main trait of diverting from the ways of natural systems. Nature is biodiverse, and the soil, plants, and wildlife grow together to efficiently support various organisms and keep the habitat healthy. Modern agriculture steps away from this, growing inefficient monocultures, causing issues with soil health and erosion, encouraging the use of synthetic, water soluble chemicals, relying heavily on fossil fuels, and lacking the ability to produce sustainable food for the growing population. To remedy this, we must take lessons from nature and grow in accordance with the habitat, just like the farmers who let their trees grow in Niger.
Israel, an efficient fighter of desertification, has taken the notion of changing agriculture to heart. As one of the nations most affected by desertification, Israel realized that improvement was essential for the wellbeing of the country. Farmers began by looking to the farming methods of their ancestors, and learned how to collect water to tend their crops. They coupled this with the growing of nitrogen fixing plants, as well as those resistant to drought, to restore soil fertility and create verdant plots. Israel devised even more ways to efficiently use its massive deserts, using brackish water to farm fish via aquaculture, installing drip irrigation units to conserve water, constructing green buildings that require no air conditioning, converting from firewood to solar energy, and recycling nearly all of their waste water. Afforestation, or the planting of forests, is also a major practice, and people are taught this, as well as all the other methods, in public outreach programs. Israel has established itself as a poster child for anti-desertification efforts, inspiring other nations to adopt its methods.
Although Israel is at the fore front of the battle against desertification, there is one technique it did not discover. Allan Savory, a prominent researcher of reversing desertification, developed a method he refers to as holistic management to restore habitats. To understand how holistic management works, it is important to know what happens during desertification. Desertification occurs when grasses and other ground cover, which cyclically die, do not decompose and therefore do not add nutrients to the soil. Before mass hunting of grazing ungulate animals, desertification was not a problem, since herds’ grouping behavior caused constant movement to avoid land covered by urine and feces. This combination of grazing and waste elimination allowed light and rain to reach the parts of the plants and soil necessary for decomposition as well as fertilizing the soil; the movement of the herd also tramped down the dead grasses and worked the waste into the ground. Because of this Savory’s solution involves carefully planned grazing of livestock to mimic nature. Holistic management has seen much success and could very well be a major solution to such a widespread problem.
Left: land treated by holistic Management; Right: untreated, spreading desert; courtesy of Savory Institute
Even with all of these methods available, desertification is still a major crisis in many areas. China, for example, has managed to stabilize its desertification, but experts estimate that it could take 300 years to actually solve the problem. The Chinese government recognized the severity of the problem and is allocating more funds to anti-desertification efforts as well as the establishment of stricter standards surrounding grazing and planting. Maybe by looking at examples like Israel, Niger, and Zimbabwe, China can mend itself and become another soldier is the fight for the environment.