What is land degradation? Land degradation is a negative change in the quality of land, usually induced by a mixture of natural and man-made causes.
It affects the land’s topsoil, the vegetation that grows on it, and the nearby water sources. It is a global issue with millions of people being affected, even forcing them to relocate in some cases.
What Causes Land Degradation
In most cases, the main causes of land degradation are linked to one or more human activities. Deforestation is one of the most common activities that cause the degradation of land.
Forests play a big part in keeping the soil fertile by constantly feeding it with nutrients from fallen leaves and fruit, as well as from animal droppings. They also keep the soil’s structure in place with the help of the trees’ roots.
Therefore, cutting down a part of a forest is a clear path to land degradation.
Another major man-made cause of land degradation and development of unfertile soils is the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers. Although they have become indispensable to raising rich crops, excessive use is known to gravely deteriorate the affected land.
Certain natural nutrients within the soil become imbalanced as a result of overuse of fertilizers, with a negative long-term effect on the land. Good farming practices will always seek to balance the short-term gain of eliminating pests and growing bigger crops with the long-term downside of land degradation.
Overgrazing is another significant cause of land degradation. It usually occurs when livestock is fed on a limited patch of land and the grass and other vegetation in the area are not able to regenerate at a sufficient rate.
The resulting lack of vegetation deprives the land of much-needed nutrients, the result being the degradation of the soil. It is a major issue, especially in Africa, where the long-term grazing of livestock on small patches of land leads to rapid land degradation.
Salination is also a significant cause of land degradation. It’s defined by the increase of salt concentration in the soil; it can be either man-induced or a natural phenomenon.
A high salt concentration in water used for irrigation, excessive use of alkaline fertilizers, inadequate soil drainage, or simply the wind blowing the salt in areas near the sea are causes of land salination that leads to land degradation.
“Land Degradation: Creation and Destruction,” by Douglas L. Johnson and Laurence A. Lewis, states that the main naturally induced causes of land degradation are wind and water erosion.
Wind erosion occurs in areas with little or no vegetation and sandy soil, so strong winds carrying soil particles deteriorate the land. Water erosion is the displacement of land either by water in motion or by heavy rains. It’s often caused by human actions like deforestation, but it can also occur naturally in situations such as heavy rain, causing soil displacement on a steep slope of land.
Land Degradation Effects
The main effects of land degradation can be soil erosion, salinization, acidification, and alkalization of the land, and finally desertification. Land desertification is the most severe stage of land degradation. It means that a piece of land has lost all its vegetation, wildlife, and all its water supplies — it basically has been turned into a desert.
The first steps in recognizing the effects that land degradation has on the planet are understanding its causes and effects. Sadly, the effects can be felt all over the world. The countries that are most affected are usually the poorest, and the lack of crops and farmable land can lead to massive food shortages.
Also, as crops become less efficient, water sources also dry up, often leading to the mass migration of people to more hospitable lands.
The downward spiral caused by land degradation can lead to major socio-economic issues. As food and water become scarce, competition for the remaining resources increases.
In poor countries and isolated regions, this competition can often lead to a monopoly on vital resources, resulting in violent attempts to overturn such a monopoly.
Experts on land management Ephraim Nkonya, Alisher Mirzabaev, and Joachim von Braun, argue in their book, “Economics of Land Degradation and Improvement – A Global Assessment for Sustainable Development,” that degradation is also a significant health hazard to the populations in the affected areas.
Due to the relatively low standard of living in most such areas, the lack of food and water will often lead to malnutrition, as well as diseases caused by the lack of clean water and the resulting poor hygiene. If the population migrates, the risk spreads out, as certain infectious diseases can be carried by the migrating population to new lands.
How to Prevent Land Degradation
In order to prevent or reverse the effects of land degradation, a series of policies and management practices must be implemented. In areas where the degradation process is at its initial stages, it’s crucial that prevention practices are quickly put in place.
Prevention is significantly less expensive than trying to reverse the effects of land degradation. That’s why the first step in preventing land degradation is to properly inform the people in an endangered area about both the causes and effects of the phenomenon and also about the great danger of desertification.
As in most situations, properly preventing land desertification is a matter of avoiding the causes. Natural causes such as heavy rain or strong winds obviously cannot be avoided, but according to a report by the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia on land degradation assessment and prevention, the man-made causes need to be better managed or eliminated in order to avoid land degradation.
Deforestation must be kept to a minimum and always be followed by reforestation, in order to keep the land well bound and rich with the nutrients it needs.
Sustainable farming also needs to be practiced, with good management of the levels of pesticides and fertilizers used, as well as avoiding soil depletion because of overgrazing by livestock.
Land degradation is an issue that should concern every country and every community. Although we have significantly evolved from a technological point of view, our survival still heavily relies on the quality of our lands, and that is especially true in poorer regions.
The decrease in soil quality not only affects agriculture but also creates a ripple effect of major socio-economic implications that affect the entire planet.
List of sources:
“Land Degradation: Creation and Destruction,” Douglas L. Johnson, Laurence A. Lewis
“Economics of Land Degradation and Improvement – A Global Assessment for Sustainable Development,” Ephraim Nkonya, Alisher Mirzabaev, Joachim von Braun
Land degradation assessment and prevention, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia