Considering that during the past 25 years, over a quarter of the earth's land has been degraded due to drought, there is no doubt that desertification is currently one of the most serious threats facing humanity.

Autor*in RESET , 11.19.14

It has been estimated that each year over 24 billion tonnes of soil is lost through erosion. According to the UNDP, at the moment over 1.2 billion people are living in extreme poverty of which 900 million are currently living in rural and under-developed areas where their livelihoods greatly rely on the sale and the consumption of agricultural products. In many such developing regions, dry lands account for more than two thirds of total land making the population of these regions especially susceptible to drought and desertification.

In the international community, the issue of desertification was first taken seriously when the Sahel region (the biogeographical zone between the Sahara desert and the Sudanian Savanna) experienced extreme drought during the period of 1968-1973. As a result, the United Nations created a new special office known as the United Nations Sudano-Sahelian Office (UNSO) to better deal with the issues facing the Sahel region. However, with an increase in degradation of land and drought in various African countries (specially the southern African drought of 1992), the need for unified international action became apparent.

Based on the latest data from UNESCO, currently 73 percent of dry lands in Africa (1.4 billion hectares) and 74 percent of dry lands in North America along with 1.4 billion hectares of land in Asia, are affected by desertification. 

Sahel region

Causes of Desertification

The causes of desertification can be divided into two major categories: Climate variation and Human Activities. When looking at the larger picture, changes in climate affect and are affected by desertification. For instance, changes in evaporation and rainfall patterns have major impacts on the water balance in regions effected by drought. It is important to note that in general terms, dry land is an area with a ratio of annual precipitation to evapotranspiration in the range of 0.05-0.65. Furthermore, degraded dry land may experience changes in radiation absorption, when its deprived of its natural vegetation.

Due to the extreme variability in precipitation levels in dry lands and various other regional climate patterns, the precise impact of human activities on desertification is difficult to identify. However, in general, overgrazing, over cultivation, deforestation and poor irrigation have been known as the major causes of desertification due to human activities.

Considering the farmer’s high level of dependency on rainfall in the dry developing regions, along with the combination of low government investment, natural resource exploration, lack of education (regarding best farming methods) and poor structures; many in the dry and semi-arid regions of the world have been forced to live in extreme poverty.

Scientist measure desertification and land degradation by using various qualitative and qualitative data and indicators, which they gather by means of surveys and/or Satellite monitoring (GIS).  The information collected may include: amount of nitrates in the soil (Physical), population growth rate (Social) and farmers production level (economic).

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was first adopted on 17th June 1994 in Paris, as a result of the UN Conference on Environment and Development. The Convention entered into force on December 1996 with 191 member states, including the European Union.

UNCCD’s definition of desertification (Article 1) is a mixture of both biophysical and anthropogenic processes, meaning that it takes into consideration both the natural and human causes of desertification: “”desertification” means land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities”. Considering this definition, the objective of the CCD is to create a set of long-term integrated strategies, not only to combat desertification, but also to mitigate and reduce the effects of drought in nations and regions that are most effected by such conditions. It is important to note that CCD’s integrated approach is considered to be in line with the UN’s Agenda 21 and its goals in regards to Sustainable Development.

Article 4 of the Convention sets out a basic set of obligations for all parties involved. Such responsibilities can be achieved either by using the existing multilateral and bilateral agreements or by a combination of different strategies. These general obligations include, but are not limited to:

1) Enactment of an integrated approach to effecting the biological, physical and socio-economic aspects of drought and desertification

2) Promotion of cooperation among the all the Parties involved

3) Combination of strategies to address the poverty issues in the effected countries

4) Increase in cooperation between various relevant intergovernmental organizations

5) Promoting the using of current multilateral and bilateral financial systems and arrangements to better provide monetary assistance to the developing countries.

Map showing UNCCD member states in green

UNCCD & Education

As a signatories to the UNCCD convention, all Member States are requires to conduct various educational and awareness-raising programs about drought, desertification and land degradation. Such activities and their implementations are mandatory part of a member state biennial report to the UNCCD.

As mentioned, one of the pillars of the UNCCD is promotion of education in order to help restore dry and degraded land. This type of education occurs though informal, formal and non-formal processes In case of formal training, which takes place during classroom instruction, UNCCD with assistance from United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have developed two sets of teacher kits:  ‘Learning to Combat Desertification’ for primary schools; and ‘Teaching Resource Kit For Dry lands Countries’ for secondary school student and teachers respectively. Such kits have been made available in nine languages for  a total of 8,000 schools in over 177 countries and are part of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). Considering the existing educational gap in the countries most effected by the desertification, UNCCD has also created a fellowship program to improve the technical skills, as well as expanding the capacity for reporting of the progress of UNCCD programs at the national and local level.

The UNCCD’s informal education is part of the educational initiatives that is meant to target everyone from school age children to adults of all ages. And finally non-formal education  part of the program is about promoting the handing over of the indigenous wisdom and their traditional practices to the new generation and different communities around the globe.

Examples of UNCCD in Action


Considering its geographical position, Germany is not directly affected by desertification; however, it does face some issues related to the loss of agricultural potential land and soil degradation. Based on the latest data from the Statistisches Bundesamt (German Statistical Office), the country loses about 84 hectares of non-developed land to new transport infrastructure and various housing projects. Not to mention that the current yearly soil erosion in Germany is 5-10 times higher than the amount of soil that is being generated. Also as an importer of agricultural produce, Germany is indirectly effected by improper land use of worsening of dry land conditions around the globe.

According on the latest report by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) report, during the years 2010-2011, the German Federal Government provided support for more than 991 projects related to combating desertification around the world. With an approximate cost of 272 million euros, 397 projects were implemented in Latin America, 344 in Africa, 207 in Asia and 39 projects in Eastern Europe. These projects are in the following categories: Food Security, Forestry, Agriculture, Rural Development, Water Supply, Environmental Policy and Management and Climate Protection. 


Morocco, is one of the Africa’s badly effected countries by desertification. It is estimated that around 90 percent of the country has been touched by issues of desertification and drought There are several indicators that represent the extend of loss of productive land, including: loss of 31,000 hectors of woodland per year due to overgrazing and harvesting firewood, water and wind erosion (2000 tones per square kilometer) and loss of 350m000 hectares of land due to salinization.

As an active member of UNCCD, Morocco presented its National Action Program (NAP) in the year 2001. Not surprisingly, the Morocco’s NAP, puts a great emphasis on conservation of water resources especially those in rain-fed farming zones and irrigate areas. Conservation and specially the sustainable improvement of forest resources has also gained priority in the NAP. For instance, Morocco plans to develop 2,300,00 hectares of esparto grasslands along with 4,000,000 hectares of forest. Furthermore the NAP calls for the creation of bio-reserves and several national parks.

The Global Mechanism (GM), advisory board to UNCCD, lists the following as obstacles and challenges that Morocco is currently facing in regards to meeting its NAP goals: vulnerability and overexploitation of forest eco-systems, limited oil resources (income), lack of proper water supply and human pressure.

Want to learn more about desertification, check out this report by UNCCD.

Author: Reza Marvasti, RESET editorial

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