What Causes Desertification? 8 Things (2024) You Must Know

The UN has been fighting desertification since 1994.

It estimates that more than 24 billion tons of fertile soil disappear every year, making this one of the key issues facing global agriculture today.

Desertification is the process of land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas.

The current climate crisis has caused these factors to multiply, and desertification is now recognized as one of the world’s major environmental problems.

In fact, some have even described it as the “greatest environmental challenge of our time”.

In this blog, we’ll review what desertification is and what causes it, so you can protect and care for your land if you’re in an impacted region.

1. What is desertification?

Desertification is the process by which vegetation in drylands (i.e. arid and semi-arid lands) decreases and eventually disappears.

This does not refer to the physical expansion of existing deserts, but rather to the various processes that threaten to transform currently non-desert ecosystems into deserts.

Desertification does NOT mean the literal expansion of deserts.

It is a catch-all term for land degradation in water-scarce parts of the world.

This degradation includes the temporary or permanent decline in the quality of soil, vegetation, water resources, or wildlife.

Additionally, it includes the deterioration of productive land (i.e., farmland).

2. What are drylands?

In this blog, we’ll refer to “drylands” as a collective group of areas.

These are arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas.

They are areas that receive little to no rain or snow each year.

The UNCCD defines drylands as areas other than polar and sub-polar regions where the ratio of annual precipitation to potential evapotranspiration falls within the range from 0.05 to 0.65.

Simply put, this means the amount of rainfall the region receives is between 5 to 65 percent of the water it may lose through evaporation and transpiration.

If an area receives more than that, then it is referred to as “humid.”

Altogether, drylands encompass around 40 percent of the Earth’s land area, and cover much of Northern and Southern Africa, Western North America, Australia, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Around 2.1 billion people live in drylands, and 90 percent of these individuals live in developing countries.

Because of scarce and variable rainfall as well as poor soil fertility, dryland ecosystems are particularly susceptible to land degradation.

In the next section, we’ll discuss the main causes of desertification and land degradation.

3. What are the major causes of desertification?

Two of the major causes of desertification are climatic variations and human activities.

Climatic variations include climate change, drought, natural disasters, and moisture loss on a global level.

Human activities include overgrazing, deforestation, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, overdrafting of groundwater, urbanization and land development, stripping the land of resources, soil pollution, overpopulation and excessive consumption, mining, and agricultural activities.

Below, we’ll break down some of these causes in more depth.


Animal grazing is a significant problem in drylands.

When too many animals graze in one spot, it is difficult for the plants to grow back.

Overall, this hurts the ecosystem and causes it to lose its vegetation cover.


When people move into a new area, they may need to clear trees or cut timber to build houses.

By destroying the forests in this way, people cause a chain reaction that can lead to desertification.

bulletFarming practices

Unfortunately, not all farmers use land effectively.

They may strip the land of everything it has to offer, then move on to another plot.

This rinse and repeat method leaves the land in worse and worse condition.

And what happens when there’s no land left to use?

The short answer…nothing good.

bulletExcessive use of fertilizers and pesticides

Using excessive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to maximize crop yields in the short term often leads to significant soil damage.

Over time, this can turn arable land into arid land, meaning it’ll no longer be suitable for farming purposes.


To meet the demand for material goods, large amounts of resources must be extracted by industries.

Mining can cause deforestation and pollution in nearby areas.

Unfortunately, by the time most of the natural resources have been extracted, the soils are damaged and the land is arid.

This damage may or may not be reversible once desertification occurs.

bulletOverpopulation and excessive consumption

The world population is growing continuously, which means there is an increasing demand for food.

To fulfill this demand, our agricultural sector looks to optimize farming processes and increase crop yields.

Unfortunately, this excessive optimization of farming can hurt the soil and eventually result in desertification.

bulletSoil pollution

Soil pollution is a significant cause of desertification.

Most plants are quite sensitive to their natural environment and will die off as the soil is polluted by human activities.

When the level of pollution is high, the soil is more likely to be degraded over time.

bulletNatural disasters

The land can be damaged by natural disasters (including drought).

While natural disasters aren’t the fault of humans, it is up to us to repair what has been damaged by nature.

bulletStripping the land of resources

Wherever resources exist, people want to take advantage of them.

They’ll come to an area and exploit underground assets, which can lead to the stripping of the soil.

As a result, the plant life will die and the biome will ultimately turn to a desert.

bulletClimate change

Climate change plays a huge role in desertification.

As climate change progresses, it’s likely that enormous areas of land will become desert.

bulletUrbanization and other types of land development

When development occurs, plants are often killed and soil damaged.

Additionally, as urbanization and land development spread, there are fewer places for plants to grow, which prompts desertification.

bulletOverdrafting of groundwater

Groundwater is one of the primary water sources for many communities in arid lands.

But when you overdraft groundwater, you extract it in excess of what will naturally recharge into the aquifer.

This depletion causes desertification.

4. What are the devastating effects of desertification?

For most of us, the reality of desertification doesn’t really sink in until we see it impact our lives.

Here is how desertification will do so if it continues to progress.

bulletCrop yields:

Desertification can drastically decrease crop yields.

When land turns from arable to arid, it’s no longer suitable for farming purposes.

This causes farmers to lose their livelihood as well as surrounding populations to have less food to consume.


Farms are essential for local populations.

Without them, people and animals won’t have food to eat.


When there isn’t any plant life, flooding is more likely to occur.

This can both damage homes and negatively affect the water supply.

bulletWater quality

Water quality declines during desertification because plant life plays a significant role in keeping water clean and clear.


Animals and people tend to steer clear of the desert.

As a result, desertification often causes crowding in other areas.

When this occurs, there can be a depletion of resources, which could further contribute to land degradation.


The above issues may lead to poverty if they’re not kept in check.

Without food and water, it can be hard for people to thrive and get the things they need.


When habitats are destroyed through desertification, this can contribute to a loss of biodiversity.

Some species may be able to adjust to the altered environmental conditions, but others are unable to do so.

When this happens, there will be some serious declines in the populations of certain species.

bulletEndangerment and extinction

Desertification can result in some species becoming endangered or even going extinct.

bulletHabitat loss

Desertification can alter the living conditions of local flora and fauna and make it impossible for animals and plants to sustain their populations.


Desertification often destroys farmers’ livelihoods.

This problem is worsened when large areas of land that are currently used for farming are no longer suitable for farming due to a lack of water.

When this occurs, serious migration movements happen simultaneously.

5. How can you prevent desertification?

Now that you know the devastating impacts of desertification, here’s what you should know about how to prevent it.

Below, we’ve listed the solutions to desertification.

bulletPolicy changes

Numerous policy changes can be enacted to help prevent desertification.

These policies include regulations on how often and how much people can farm or develop in certain areas.


Education is an essential tool (especially in developing countries where most desertification is happening) to help people understand how to properly farm and use the land.

Teaching sustainable practices will help to save land in the long term.

bulletTechnology advances

Research is helping us see what we can do to overcome our environmental problems.

Sometimes, not a whole lot may be done to prevent desertification.

That said, new information is coming to light to show us how we can prevent desertification from turning into an epidemic.

bulletRestricting mining practices

Because mining often destroys large areas of land, the practice should be regulated by governments to keep the natural environment intact.

By doing this, we can mitigate desertification overall.


Planting trees in areas subject to deforestation is vitally important.

Forests act as natural carbon dioxide storage spaces that slow down global warming and contribute to maintaining the natural ecosystem.

If you can, plant trees in affected areas.

This will not only prevent desertification, but also fight any additional environmental issues that may occur.

bulletSustainable practices

Integrating sustainable practices into your daily life can help prevent desertification.

Examples include sustainable waste management (i.e. composting), reusing natural materials, and creating as little waste as possible.

6. Was the Sahara Desert always a desert?

You may be surprised to find out that the answer is no.

Around 6,000 years ago, the Sahara Desert was a grassland covered in vegetation.

However, the oscillations of the Earth’s axis turned this area of the planet from an orchard to a desert.

Today, of course, it is the most famous desert in the world, well known for its sand dunes.

7. How do NGOs and international bodies help those impacted by desertification?

Most of the individuals affected by desertification do not have the resources to combat desertification.

As a result, non-government organizations (NGOs) and internationally-funded projects have stepped in to provide assistance to local farmers.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was established in 1994 specifically to combat this issue.

In addition, many NGOs have been particularly active since the drought of the 1980s.

One example is the Eden Foundation, based in Sweden.

It was established in 1985 and has helped 20,000 households in the Dalli region of Niger.

Niger is one of the driest countries in the world.

Its people are poor and lack food, so the Eden Foundation created a project to help farmers and their families achieve a sustainable life with the resources available to them.

Eden sees the solution as using native trees and bushes to provide food.

Fortunately, these plants require neither irrigation nor chemical fertilizers to grow or provide the following benefits:

bulletSoil stabilization

bulletCrop shelter

bulletErosion prevention

bulletFruit production

8. How can social, economic, and policy factors contribute to desertification?

Above, we talked a little bit about how policies can be used to help prevent desertification in the future.

Unfortunately, it works both ways.

Currently, some policies are leading to the unsustainable use of resources.

For example, policies favoring sedentary farming over nomadic herding can contribute to desertification.

Poor policymaking contributes to major land degradation each day, and until these policies are reevaluated, desertification cannot be remedied.

Our policymakers must be invested in saving the planet as well.

Final Thoughts

While desertification is a serious issue, the world can combat this phenomenon by understanding the causes of desertification and implementing actions that will help regenerate arable land.

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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