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Desertification and Drought

Desertification and Drought

Act before it’s too late!

Famine, a catastrophic calamity that is often an outcome of drought, devours large numbers of humans and livestock whenever it strikes somewhere on the earth. The land plays a major role in production of food and other sources of the fulfilment of humans’ biological needs. However, droughts adversely impact land and cause its barrenness and desertification that puts the very existence of the humans and other forms of life in jeopardy, compelling them to migrate. Although drought and desertification are direct results of climatic changes, the actions of humans also are equally responsible for causing physical changes to the earth. Owing to unchecked, excessive cultivation of land, unbridled use of water and pesticides, deforestation, livestock grazing pressure, flawed irrigation systems, meddling with natural biological diversity, rapid expansion of cities, and disturbance in the earth’s ecological balance, the menaces of desertification and drought are affecting our land. As per an estimate, nearly 12 million hectares of land worldwide are lost to land degradation every year, which comes out to be 23 hectares per second. However, if these lands are made fit for agriculture, they can yield as many as 20 million tons of food crops. The precariousness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that from 1950 to 1980, only 10-14 percent of the total land mass was classified as dry whereas it rose to 25-30 percent during 2000-2010. Moreover, according to the United Nations Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification, which runs from January 2010 to December 2020, in the mid-1990s, only 110 countries were at risk of severe land degradation but that number had risen to 168 countries by 2013, and is now costing US$490 billion per year. In addition, every year 75 billion tons of crop soil is lost to land degradation. Experts suggest that it takes centuries for such soil to amass but it gets wasted within a few seasons. Amidst this situation, the menace of drought has also propped up. As per the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the ratio of land affected by drought has doubled during the past 40 years and more people than any other natural calamity have been affected. And, the duration, frequency and intensity of droughts have also increased in most parts of the world due to climate-change-induced temperature rises. These facts and figures sets alarm bells ringing about the looming dangers of drought and desertification.

To make the people around the world aware of these impending perils, every year 17th of June is observed as the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought which is an important event because an increasing number of people around the world, especially those living in developing countries, is faced with these mounting problems. Women, particularly, are more vulnerable to the severe impacts of both the menaces as in many Third World countries, they have to fetch water for drinking, collect wood for fuel consumption and graze the livestock. With depleting natural sources in the wake of drought and desertification, doing these chores becomes tormenting for them. Although they, in this way, are more vulnerable than men, yet when the threat of drought and desertification starts looming large, men and women alike have to migrate, along with their domesticated animals. According to some credible estimates, in the coming 10-15 years, nearly 50 million people will migrate mainly due to the changes in earth’s structure caused by desertification.

Unfortunately, we make use of earth and its resources as if they were unlimited and infinite. We often overlook the role the earth is playing in our daily lives. This neglect jeopardizes the provision of food and water, and threatens biological diversity and even the very existence of humans. Moreover, changing patterns of earth-use also increase emission of greenhouse gases. Earth cannot be made better unless the emission of these hazardous gases is curbed. For instance, drylands, which account for 41.2 percent of world’s total area and are an abode to nearly 2.1 billion people, absorb 46 percent of world’s total carbon emissions. Almost 44 percent of world’s total cultivable land comprises drylands and 30 percent of agricultural plants come from those. With their pastures, they are also the source of food for nearly half the world’s animal population. However, they are faced with the threat of land degradation and desertification. So, the sustainable use of drylands is indispensable for reaping ecological, environmental and economic benefits.

Experts opine that people living in drylands are more dependent on environmental services than their counterparts living in other setups. Agricultural yields, production of livestock and milk, production of wood for fuel and other purposes, all depend on new plants. But their number is limited in drylands owing, mainly, to scant availability of water. And, due to it, there exists a substantial difference between demand and supply of water in those areas. A person needs at least 2000 cubic metres of water annually to meet his basic needs; however, the availability of water in drylands is as little as 1300 cubic metres annually. Hence, the living standards of the populations of drylands are much lower than their counterparts in other ecological zones. For example, there is usually less average income and high ratio of mortality among children below one year of age (Thar in Pakistan is an important example in this context).

Geologists say that the silent killer of desertification or expansion of deserts is a source of growing concern for scientists all over the world. There exists a strong relationship between the earth’s sources and its natural environment and when humans interfere, desertification results. For instance, cutting of trees exposes earth to wind and coastal erosion. Over-cultivation of land and excessive use of pesticides effects a gradual decrease in food element of the earth, thus eroding its fertility which, again, results in desertification.

Sheer lack of proper monitoring of irrigation, and flawed methods adopted for that often give birth to issues like waterlogging and salinity. With the rise in underground water table, the land becomes unfit for agricultural activities. Moreover, when this water comes to the surface, it takes form of ponds. It so happens because with the rise in underground water table, the earth’s water-absorption capacity is severely hampered. And, when this water in ponds evaporates, the thick layer of salinity on the earth’s surface turns the land into a dryland. Similarly, overexploitation of natural grazing fields and removal of soil with animals’ hoofs, cutting of trees for expansion of cities and demolishing of natural abodes of animals and birds, all these are manmade activities that are further pushing the earth toward desertification. In addition, natural phenomena like droughts are also taking a heavy toll on the earth.

According to a study conducted by the International Center for Drought Risk Reduction, less than ten percent of natural calamities occurring globally are drought-induced, but they account for nearly 40 percent of the victims. Drought is the second biggest natural calamity after floods. Between 1970 and the decade of 2000s, the area affected by drought has almost doubled. However, its impact varies from time to time and region to region. In Africa, a longer period of drought affects hundreds of thousands of people by causing food shortages, famines and ultimately death, whereas in America, this phenomenon causes economic losses only. Severe and prolonged drought results in desertification and sand and dust storms in arid and semi-arid regions. It is true that drought cannot be stopped but it can, at least, be predicted with the help of technological innovations – and, in some cases, it is possible even months before the actual event. So, with better management droughts can be forestalled.

Desertification is not only the cause of poverty in the world but is also an effect of that. Attracted by large incomes and marginal costs, people start imprudently exploiting natural resources so as to improve their living standards. Hence, they overuse the land which results in land degradation and, ultimately, desertification. With this, the productive capacity of the soil also gets hampered and instead of adding to their incomes, this menace further entraps a large chunk of population, whose sustenance is dependent on it, into a vicious cycle of acute poverty. In this case, the use of already degrading natural resources further increases and resultantly the doom is met earlier. This precarious situation, particularly in rural areas, is an ominous sign of coming human crises and catastrophes.

Pakistan is included among 168 countries that are severely affected by desertification. As per a report by the Sustainable Land Management Project of Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change, 51 percent of country’s area is facing desertification. More than 80 percent of the country’s classified land consists of arid and semi-arid areas and nearly two-thirds of the country’s population is dependent on drylands. Average annual rainfall in arid areas, which include Layyah, Muzaffargarh, Mianwali, Lodhran, Vehari, Larkana, Hyderabad, Bannu and some other districts, is below 250 millimetres, while in some areas that are characterized by desert climate, it is even below 150 millimetres. These areas include Thar Desert in Sindh, Cholistan Desert in Punjab, Bahawalpur, Rahimyar Khan, Jacobabad, and central parts of Northern Areas. In semi-arid areas, which include Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Lahore, Sargodha, Sheikhupura, Mardan, central and northwestern Dir and Kohat, average annual rainfall ranges between 200 and 500 millimetres. Hence, nearly three-fourths of the country’s totral area receives less than 250 millimetres of annual rainfall and nearly one-fifth even below 125 millimetres. Owing to this a threat of drought keeps hovering over the residents of these areas. So, even a slight alteration in rainfall causes huge socioeconomic impacts. In more sensitive areas, on average, 2-3 years in a decade are characterized by drought.

The reasons of desertification in Pakistan are divided into three major categories: (i) expanding deserts of Thar and Cholistan; (ii) growing desertification owing to unchecked deforestation; and (iii) salinity and waterlogging, overuse of pastures and rapid urbanization.

Human activities are also adding an impetus to the deleterious impacts of desertification; the foremost among them being the deforestation which is resulting in increased frequency of climate–change-induced natural calamities and the rising desertification. Trees break the wind speed and, owing to this, the fertile soil on the surface is not displaced. Trees also thwart the flow of soil with the floodwater. They also help in reducing temperatures as they act as a screen to stop the direct sunlight. They also thwart evaporation of water. Besides, trees are also a big source of recharge of the underground water table. And, above all, they have an undeniably important role to play in maintaining the moisture content in the air; and, by way of this, causing rains. Absorption of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen in the air is yet another instance of their environment-friendliness. But, alas, trees are being mercilessly cut despite the fact that they had uncountable benefits. Our neglect of trees is mirrored by the eleventh Five-Year Plan 2013-18 according to which Pakistan produces only 14.4 million cubic metres of wood against an annual demand of 43 million cubic metres.

This gaping difference between demand and supply is met with illegal cutting of trees. With less forest or tree cover, the rainwater washes away the soil causing two bigger problems: reduction in soil fertility and piling up of silt in rivers and dams. Hence, water supply system cannot function to its optimal capacity. According to a research paper titled “Desertification in Pakistan, Challenges and Opportunities,” published in the Journal of Environmental Treatment Techniques, around 40 million tons of soils are brought into Indus basin each year. It shortens life span of major reservoirs and their efficiency. Experts suggest that Pakistan’s two biggest reservoirs Tarbela and Mangla are fast deteriorating owing to the silt that comes with the flow of water into them. As per the findings of the Planning Commission of Pakistan 10,000 acre feet of water storage capacity of Tarbela and 60,000 acre feet of that of Mangla has been cut. This shortage of water may be one of the biggest reasons behind desertification in Pakistan.

Another big reason of desertification is waterlogging and salinity that is a direct outcome of our flawed irrigation system. At present, nearly 11 million hectares of Pakistan’s areas is affected by waterlogging and 2.8 million hectares by salinity. In addition, 10.1 million hectares is affected by water erosion and 5 million hectares by wind erosion due to which 28 percent of the soil is displaced. Wind erosion is a problem that is acuter in arid and desert areas of the country. At present, the problem of wind erosion is severe in areas like Thal, Cholistan, Tharparkar and sandy areas along the Makran Coast. Major degrading factors include increase in the livestock population, the overexploitation of range lands for fuel wood cutting and excessive livestock grazing which is causing a decrease in vegetation cover of the earth, and is also causing intensification of wind erosion. The dust and sand these strong winds bring along cause dust storms in human settlements and fields. Humans catch ailments related to respiratory system, eyes and skin problems. The Quetta Valley is sometimes engulfed by such stormy winds.

This state of affairs is calling our attention to the fact that if we do not take steps for the amelioration of the situation, the current menace could become an insurmountable challenge for us. So, we need to follow the path of harmony, not conflict, with the nature. This is the only way we can meet all kinds of needs of human beings.

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