The world's drylands, contrary to popular misconceptions of being barren unproductive land, contain some of the most valuable and vital ecosystems on the planet. These dryland environments have surprising diversity and resiliency, supporting over two billion people, approximately thirty-five percent of the global population (UNEP, 2003). In fact, approximately seventy percent of Africans depend directly on drylands for their daily livelihood (UNEP, 2003). However, these precious and crucial areas are at a crossroad, endangered and threatened by the devastating process of desertification. There are over one hundred definitions for the term desertification', however the most widely used and current definition is as follows: desertification refers to the land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions due to human activities and climate variations, often leading to the permanent loss of soil productivity and the thinning out of the vegetative cover (UNCCD, 2003). It is important to note that desertification is not the expansion and contraction of deserts or hyper-arid territories, which grow and decrease both naturally and cyclically. French ecologist Louis Lavauden first used the term desertification in 1927 and French botanist Andre Aubreville, when witnessing the land degradation occurring in North and West Africa in 1949 popularized this term (Dregne, 242). The causes of desertification include overgrazing, overcultivation, deforestation and poor irrigation practices. Climatic variations, such as changes in wind speed, precipitation and temperature can influence or increase desertification rates, but they are not catalysts to the process- it is the exploitative actions of humans that trigger desertification (Glantz, 146). The most exploited area historically has been Africa. In the Sahel (transition zone between the Sahara and the Savanna) of West Africa during the period of 1968 to 1973, desertification was a main cause of the deaths of over 100,000 people and 12 million cattle, as well as the disruption of social organizations from villages to the national level (USGS, 1997). As a result of the catastrophic devastation in the Sahel, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was held in Nairobi, Kenya in 1977, where an agreement was reached to eradicate desertification by the year 2000. Obviously this goal was not achieved. Countries and organizations, notably in the industrialized world, have been unwilling to provide significant and sufficient financial and economic aid to countries most impacted by this issue (Mainguet, 2003). Consequently, desertification is out of control, threatening the sustainability of the world's environment, disrupting social structures and well-being, and impairing economic growth. This crisis reaches beyond the local, directly affected communities, impacting and jeopardizing world stability. Environmentally, desertification reduces the world's freshwater reserves due to water over consumption and irrigation mismanagement, decreases genetic diversity through soil erosion and plant destruction, and also accelerates the carbon exchange process by damaging carbon sinks'. Socially, desertification causes population displacement as people search for better living conditions, often leading to conflicts and wars. Another social consequence is a dramatic reduction in the world's food supply due to the depletion of vital dryland vegetation and a decline in crop yields. Desertification is also linked to a number of health issues such as malnutrition, as clean water and sufficient food resources are extremely scarce. Economically, income potential is lost because land is unproductive, and monetary funds are devoted towards combating desertification, compromising economic growth and development. Crisis management becomes more important than achieving economic goals. Furthermore, increasing levels of poverty have resulted due to dire economic...
Cited: Dregne, H.E., et al. Desertification of Arid Lands. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1983.
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Glantz, M.H. Desertification: A Review of Concept. Boulder: Westview Press, 1983.
Warren, Andrew, et al. An assessment of desertification and land degradation in arid and semi-arid areas. London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 1988.
Wu, Jianguo. Desertification. Phoenix: Arizona State University West, Department of Life Sciences, 2001.
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