Climate and Environmental Literacy

Desertification and land degradation threaten global well-being

Today, June 17, marks World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

Desertification is the process by which arable land is depleted of nutrients and becomes less able to sustain the growth of plants. It’s spurred by changing weather patterns — increasingly common due to climate change — and human activity that overexploits the soil.

Desertification and land degradation have caused extensive consequences felt around the world. Drylands are areas with great water scarcity and constitute almost half of agricultural land globally, providing 60% of the world’s food.

Two billion hectares of land have already been degraded, and this figure continues to increase. This area of land equates to over four billion football fields. The poorest and most marginalized people in the world are among those at the highest risk.

As increasing land degradation leads to heightened food insecurity, water scarcity, conflict and poverty, many inhabitants of drylands will be forced to leave their homes and become climate refugees. Current estimates place the number of people that will be displaced by climate change, land degradation and related factors at 700 million people by 2050.

Many regions of the world are already experiencing the impacts of land degradation. Desertification-related dust storms in East Asia and the Sahel region of Africa are the cause of negative health effects such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic dust exposure can also lead to premature death.

The food insecurity resulting from this loss of land productivity spurs conflict as people compete over land for crop cultivation and grazing. In Africa, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Lesotho have experienced violent conflicts traced back to land degradation.

At the same time that land is being depleted, global demand for resources is increasing. By 2030, food production is estimated to require an additional 300 million hectares of land.

The previous executive secretary of the UN’s Convention to Combat Desertification, Luc Gnacadja, declared that desertification and land degradation is the “the greatest environmental challenge of our time” with “far-reaching consequences and impacts.”

Loss of fertile soil also accelerates climate change and loss of biodiversity — issues that have immediate tangible effects on the Global North. As desertification continues and its impact becomes more prominent worldwide, developed countries will lose the privilege to brush this issue aside.

Solutions to increasing rates of desertification and drought are varied. They include policy changes in farming practices and land use to encourage sustainable land management, restrictions on mining in susceptible areas and reforestation.

11 countries in the Sahel-Sahara region of Africa have come together to combat desertification through reforestation. The Great Green Wall initiative aims to plant 8,000 km of vegetation to mitigate not only drought and desertification, but also conflict and famine in the region.

In order to effectively implement powerful solutions to the pressing issues of desertification and drought, climate education is a vital tool. It will foster a climate-literate generation ready to tackle desertification and the existential climate crisis.

Combined with urgent policy shifts to combat desertification and drought, climate and environmental literacy will create jobs and allow citizens to engage with their governments in a meaningful way to solve climate change.

In honor of World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, sign the petition calling on governments to commit to urgent action on climate and environmental literacy at the Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, UK.