Desertification: Meaning, Causes, Effects and Solutions

A desert is a space where almost nothing grows. Though some especially hardy plants, animals and insects can survive in a desert, it is usually a very arid place with little rainfall, few nutrients as there is usually sand in place of soil, and few sources of water such as streams and pools.

Meaning of Desertification

Desertification is a man-made process which is causing these natural deserts to expand catastrophically beyond their usual limits, as well as causing new deserts to form in places that were once filled with life.

Desertification, then, we can infer, is the process by which a space becomes a desert. Desertification can mean two things.

  • Firstly, it can mean the process of expansion of an existing desert.
  • Secondly, it can mean the process by which a previously fertile place turns into a desert: the plants die, the soil loses its nutrients, and the animals leave for other places as they are unable to survive in the now desertified environment.

Desertification is a key symptom of a planet that has been damaged by human activity. So, it is up to us humans to become better custodians of our planet and to stop polluting it, cutting down its precious trees, and stripping the soil of its nutrients through greedy agricultural or industrial practices.

The causes of desertification.

Some causes of desertification are natural, whilst others are human derived. The vast majority of desertification in the present day is caused by harmful human activity. Sometimes the two can combine and natural processes of desertification that are already underway can be accelerated and made worse by humans. Here are five of the main causes of desertification:

1. Intensive agriculture: intensive agriculture strips the nutrients from the soil, especially if the same crops are grown year after year and chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used.

2. Natural processes of rock disintegration: rocks in the desert can be broken down very slowly by the wind to create more sand. This is a slow, natural process.

3. Deforestation: deforestation means cutting down trees – often this occurs to turn forest land into farmland or land for building on. The roots of trees in a forest help to hold the soil together, as well as keeping it rich in nutrients. When trees are cut down, the soil disintegrates, loses it nutrients, and is baked by the sun with no leaves to shade it and swept away by the wind and the rain. It can very quickly become a dry desert.

4. Global warming: burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and these cause the earth’s temperatures to rise. As a result, water dries up, plants struggle to live and keep the soil rich in nutrients: deserts expand and new deserts appear.

5. Pollution: deserts and so-called ‘dead zones’ can appear in lakes and other bodies of water, as well as on land as a result of human pollution. Pesticides, industrial chemicals,oil spills, and other pollutants can destroy the ecosystems anywhere in the world, with surprising rapidity.

The effects of desertification.

Now that we know what causes desertification, here are five of its effects – all of them are negative.

1. Loss of biodiversity: animals and plants cannot live in a desert. Desertification propels the loss of biodiversity on a large-scale.

2. Less food for humans: it is very difficult to grow crops in a desert. Desertification causes great food insecurity, particularly for the world’s poorest people.

3. Loss of water supplies: communities who live in desertified environments have less and less access for water that they can use for drinking, cooking, and agriculture.

4. Displacement of human communities: communities who live in desertifying environments will often be forced to leave their homes. This displacement is traumatic and can upset the lives of millions of families all of a sudden.

5. More vulnerability to the weather: forests and other non desert environments provide protection from strong winds, floods, and rainstorms. In a desert, though, these extreme weather events sweep right across the land, able to destroy human settlements, wreaking huge destruction.

Solutions to desertification.

Human beings can take action right now to halt desertification and perhaps even reverse its effects. Here are five ways that we can do so

1. Reforest the planet: planting forests actively protects the soil against becoming a desert: leaf mulch is packed with nutrients and the trees’ roots will hold the soil in place. Reforestation has plenty of other benefits alongside simply preventing desertification – forests help to support huge biodiversity, for example.

2. Stop burning fossil fuels: this will go a long way to halt climate change and global warming and stop the earth reaching the scorching temperatures that cause desertification.

3. Stop polluting our land with pesticides, oil, chemicals, and other harmful materials: this will prevent the formation of dead zones where nothing grows. Using fewer chemicals and opting for organic methods of farming will really help here.

4. Stop water pollution: everything from pesticides sprayed into the air to leaks from industrial tankers can quickly turn a lake that was once teeming with life into a barren desert.

5. Stop intensive agriculture: The ‘slow food’ movement which is all about a less intensive way to producing and consuming food is another potential solution to this issue.


It’s time to stop desertification in its tracks. Earth is home to various natural deserts, such as the majestic Sahara or the deserts in Nevada. However, these are natural deserts, with carefully balanced ecosystems of their own.

Let’s all, both as individuals and as a group, start to take action from today onwards to make desertification a thing of the past.