• Laith Sharba

Drought and Desertification in Africa, Signs and Evidence.

Vegetation index change detection as a Sign of desertification in Africa form Sep 1982 (in right) to Mar 1984 (in left): NASA Earth Observatory
Vegetation index change detection as a Sign of desertification in Africa form Sep 1982 (in right) to Mar 1984 (in left): NASA Earth Observatory

The term of Desertification is mean the changing of productivity of land or land degradation in the arid, semi-arid and wetlands, as a result of the destruction of land due to soil erosion by both natural and human-made. The sand dunes movements and may be the result of Sahara spreading outward as well as soil poverty. we can recognize that drought as a reason for desertification and it responsible about increasing the rate of degradation. In addition to climate change and increasing of temperature, rain scarcity and increasing the evaporation rates which leave the soil saltier. In addition, Torrents which sweeps the soil and groundwater level rise are the natural reasons for desertification. While, the anthropogenic reasons for desertification are forests, tree cutting which works to bond soil, overgrazing and intensive cultivation which exposed the soil to wind erosion, in addition to poor irrigation methods. This phenomenon affected the agriculture productivity.

The United Nations (UN), classified the desertification to 4 classes as to its impacts. The first one is the light desertification, which causes slight impacts in the vegetation and soil but doesn’t influence the biological capacity of the land. The second is the moderate desertification, which causes a moderate influence on the vegetation, soil salting, forming small sand dunes and decrease the productivity to about 10 – 15%. The third is strong desertification, which decreases productivity to about 50%. The last is the very strong desertification, which forming large sand dunes and eliminates the productivity of the land (United Nations, 2003).

Desertification is one of the most serious problems in the world and Africa in particular. It impacts about 30% of the earth’s surface and affected more than 1 billion people all over the world. Africa is the most continent of the world suffering from desertification because of more than 32% of the worlds arid lands located in Africa and about 73% of agricultural lands which located on arid regions were degraded as a reason of desertification. We can recognize that more than 68% of African lands are desertification lands and about 20% of African land is threatened by it. Desertification in Africa is a complexed problem because it’s related to the poverty which causes the misuse of agriculture land to produce as much of the crop as possible, which leads to soil degradation and thus erosion, which marks the beginning of desertification. This leads to the migration of people, leading to increased pressure on agricultural land thus repeat the cycle of desertification.

El Sahel region is one of the most affected areas of desertification in the world. The region was exposed to several drought periods in the 20th century in the 1910s, 1940s and in the late 1960s to early 1970s, extending the deserts of North Africa and spreading southward. The southern coast of the Mediterranean is occupied by flat plains which depend on the rainfall in the short winter season to cultivate crops in the shortest time available, in addition to overgrazing of sheep and goat. This causes soil degradation which evolved to desertification. Moroccan highlands suffering from soil erosion causes runoff water, in addition to the frequency of droughts which increasing the desertification issue. The repeated cycles of drought and degradation of natural resources in Mauritania affecting the productive capacity of the land. The Nile river valley has intensive cultivation and poor irrigation systems which exposed the soil to wind erosion and raise of underground water levels in the soil, especially in Nile Delta which evolve to desertification.

In Africa sub-Sahara, Deforestation plays a major role in desertification when cutting a million hectares of forest to expand cultivation and produce energy in response to population growth, especially in Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, Niger, and others. These activities expose large areas of land to degradation and desertification. High population growth increases the pressure of limited land resources and increasing the desertification. Never this less, the most aridest lands in Africa are poverty hotspot and suffering from desertification risk with high levels. Because most of these population located on marginal lands in rural areas, and Desertification threatens agricultural production on these lands (UNCCD, 2004). In addition, drought and floods are responsible for 80% of the loss of life and 70% of economic losses in this region (The World Bank, 2007).

Desertification in Africa (FAO, 1990)
Desertification in Africa (FAO, 1990)

Through the above discussion, drought and desertification are a general problem of most of Africa. Hence, realistic and implemented solutions must be worked out to address these problems that threaten millions of people on the African continent. These solutions like fighting the sand dunes movement on agriculture land and reclaim more land for cultivation to relieve the pressure of the existing land. In addition to repair of the poor irrigation systems and using the modern enhanced irrigation methods, like drip and sprinkler irrigation in the old cultivated lands and using the central irrigation method in the new reclaimed land, which will protect the soil from erosion and degradation caused by runoff of the traditional irrigation water as well as reduce the level of underground water which leads to a decrease in the productivity and poverty of agricultural land. Stop cutting the forests, whether to produce energy or to cultivation and replace it with other sources of energy in those areas and reclamation of other lands away from the forests, thus keeping the soil from being disintegrated and erosion. In addition to creating a green belt of trees around lands which suffering from light levels of desertification to protect it from the risk of increasing desertification rates.

These are a sample of solution for desertification issue and I am waiting your suggestions for more solutions in the comments below…….


1. FAO, 1990, the conservation and rehabilitation of African lands.

2. NASA Earth Observatory.

3. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD): a carrying pillar in the global combat against land degradation and food insecurity. Background paper for the San Rossore meeting ‘Climate change: a new global vision’ Pisa, Italy,15 - 16 July 2004

4. The World Bank and United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) (2007). Report on the Status of Disaster Risk Reduction in the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) Region.

5. United Nations, 2003, Combat Desertification and Drought in North Africa, Economic Commission for Africa - North African Office, ECA-NA/TNG/ICE/XVIII/9. April 2003.

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