What is Combating Desertification?


The world's drylands occupy a vast region and are home to more than 2.5 billion people. Many of the world's regions are adversely affected by desertification and the concept of desertification is rooted in the charter of the United Nations Convention to combat Desertification and Drought (UNCCD). UNCCED was established in 1992 and is the first international treaty to, amongst other things, emphasize the need for an integrated approach to combating desertification which includes activities as part of the integrated development of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas which are aimed at the prevention and/or reduction of land degradation; rehabilitation of partly degraded land and reclamation of desertified land.

Serious land degradation is a problem that many countries face. The economic costs are significant but human tragedy of crops and animals destroyed, and lives lost bring home the true nature and extent of the problem. Add to this are the impact on biodiversity and the impact on global climate change as the albedo changes. 

Desertification often results from the degradation of the vegetation cover by overgrazing, over trampling, fuelwood collection, repeated burning, or inappropriate agricultural practices, which leads to a general decrease in the productivity of the land and in accelerated degradation of soil resource, and eventually affects the capacity of the vegetation to recover and constitutes the principal mechanism of irreversible damage to the environment. Therefore, the real task of combating desertification is one of implementing more sustainable land use practices and changing the enabling environment that will allow better stewardship to take root and prosper. 

Some Terminology and Definitions

Desertification: In the early years of worldwide efforts to combat desertification, there have been misunderstanding and misguided practices due to lack of clarity in the definition of the subject. It is for this reason that defining relating concepts clearly and consistently is of paramount importance in treating combating desertification as a worldwide environmental issue. To date, most countries have agreed to adopt the definition adopted by UNCCDD. Desertification is now taken as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, mainly climatic variation and changes and human activities. Desert regions where P/ETP<0.05 are excluded. Desertification does not refer to the expansion of existing deserts. It occurs because dry land ecosystems, which covers over one third of the world's land area, are extremely vulnerable to over-exploitation and inappropriate land use practices.

A consequence of misunderstanding about desertification, fuelled by the belief that desert spreading is the primary problem, is the planting in sand dunes but the benefit/cost ratio of such planting is low or negative. Progress in combating desertification requires a major re-think and the application of holistic approaches such as Integrated Ecosystem Management.

Land Degradation - means reduction or loss of the biological or economic productivity and complexity of rain fed cropland, irrigated cropland, or range, pasture, forest and woodlands resulting from land use or from a process or combination of processes, including processes arising from human activities and habitation patterns, such as soil erosion caused by wind and/or water; deterioration of the physical, chemical and biological or economic properties of soil; and long -term loss of vegetation.

Arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas – mean areas other than polar and sub-polar regions, in which the ratio of annual precipitation to potential evapotranspiration falls within the range from 0.05-0.65. Hyper-arid areas, including real deserts such as the Sahara and China's Taklamakan were excluded from the UN definition.


Combating Desertification in Asia, Africa and the Middle East - Proven practices, G. Ali Heshmati, Victor R. Squires (editors), Springer Netherlands, 2013, ISBN 978-94-007-6651-8, 476 pp.