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Deserts are expanding & how

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Deserts are expanding & how

Land degradation and desertification are one of the most challenging global issues today.  Threatening not only the productivity of land but also water quality, human health and the fundamentals of ecosystems on which all life depends...

Deserts are expanding & how

While land degradation and desertification are acutely felt in the worlds arid lands, some 80 per cent is actually occurring outside these areas. For this reason, there is an urgent need to halt and reverse land degradation for ensuring food, water and environment security as well improving living conditions of population residing in such areas…

Himanshi Shukla

Land degradation and desertification are one of the most challenging global issues today.  Threatening not only the productivity of land but also water quality, human health and the fundamentals of ecosystems on which all life depends, they have a close connection with other major global issues, particularly climate change and biodiversity. It has been estimated that globally around 24 billion tons of fertile soil and 27,000 bio-species are lost each year (UNCCD figures). While land degradation is acutely felt in the world’s arid lands, some 80 per cent is actually occurring outside these areas. For this reason, there is an urgent need to halt and reverse land degradation for ensuring food, water and environment security as well improving living conditions of population residing in such areas.

Desertification, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity were identified as the greatest challenges to sustainable development during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit which paved the way for the conceptualization and formulation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). India is signatory to the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD) and is committed to achieve the land degradation neutral status by 2030.

Stark reality of land degradation and desertification in India: Tale of an expanding desert and more

According to the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India that was released by the Space Applications Centre of ISRO in 2021, 97.85 million hectares (mha) of India’s total geographical area (TGA) of 328.72 mha underwent land degradation during 2018-19. This translates to a whopping 29.7 per cent increase in a single year. Data from the Atlas reveals that 96.40 mha area of the country is undergoing process of land degradation i.e., 29.32% of the Total Geographic Area (TGA) of the country during 2011-13, while during 2003-05 the area undergoing process of land degradation is 94.53 mha (28.76% of the TGA). Analysis shows that around 23.95% (2011-13) and 23.64% (2003-05) of desertification/land degradation with respect to total TGA is contributed by Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana in descending order. All other remaining states are contributing less than 1% (individually) of desertification/land degradation.

“However, the analysis with respect to Total Geographical Area of the individual states show that Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat and Goa are showing more than 50% area under desertification/land degradation, whereas states with less than 10% area under desertification/land degradation are Kerala, Assam, Mizoram, Haryana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Arunachal Pradesh,” the Atlas concludes.

“Area under desertification (arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions of the country) during 2011-13 is 82.64 mha; whereas, during 2003-05 it is 81.48 mha. Thus, there is a cumulative increase of 1.16 mha area under desertification. The most significant processes of desertification in arid region are observed to be wind erosion and in semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions vegetation degradation and water erosion dominates. The most significant process of desertification/ land degradation in the country is Water Erosion (10.98% in 2011-13 and 10.83% in 2003-05). The second most significant process is Vegetation Degradation (8.91% in 2011- 13 and 8.60% in 2003-05), which is followed by Wind erosion (5.55 % in 2011- 13 and 5.58 % in 2003-05),” the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India concludes.

A recent study conducted by Dr Laxmi Kant Sharma, Associate Professor and PhD. Research scholar, Department of Environment Science, Central University of Rajasthan, Alok Raj and Kritika Somawat was published in peer reviewed International “Journal of Arid Environments” titled “Spatio-temporal assessment of Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) in The Thar Desert India, to combat desertification under UNCCD framework.The research monitors how land degradation and desertification are impacting not only the desert ecology but posing an existential threat to ecologically sensitive areas, biodiversity and more.  “Based on recent studies, it can be said that the Thar Desert is expanding. Sreenvas et al., 2021 reported that in Rajasthan, land degradation had slightly increased due to wind and soil erosion, and Sharma et al., 2021 showed that the north-western part of the Thar desert was vulnerable to desertification,” Dr Sharma tells TreeTake.

What is the current research all about and why is it important?

“The research deals with temporal monitoring and mapping land degradation and desertification over the Thar Desert, which occupies the north-western part of Rajasthan, India, with arid climatic conditions. It is necessary to control desertification by taking a few safety steps to create an early warning system based on scientific facts and satellite and secondary data. The current study has focused on integrating different data (i.e., climate, vegetation, and socio-economic), primary and secondary, as per their availability at a spatial scale for evaluating Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA), prone to desertification. It also provides temporal observation of various ESA indicators to measure the intensity and severity of land degradation in desertification. The weightage of ESA indicators was assigned based on Analytical Hierarchical Processes (AHP) to quantifying the Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI). Overall, current research can guide authorities in proceeding with appropriate measures for addressing the process of land degradation. It would help the concerned authorities to execute suitable actions for combating desertification as apprised in COP-14 meeting under UNCCD framework, lately held in New Delhi (India) in 2019,” Dr Sharma states.

What is the difference between Desertification and Land Degradation? How are they caused and what threats do they pose?

Dr Sharma comments: “Desertification is an outcome of land degradation and occurs in arid, semiarid, and subhumid areas. It is most common in areas with less than 25 mm of annual rainfall, and the pressures that initiate the process include the interaction of domestic cattle overgrazing and arid conditions that are close to the threshold for the dominant plant's survival. In the technologically advanced era, desertification or land degradation mapping and monitoring have been made possible by remote sensing and analysed through GIS applications.” “As per United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), desertification and land degradation have been altering the quality of life of several people across the world. Desertification expansion affects multiple dimensions of the region, such as people and livestock migration, change in regional climatic conditions, highly degrades soil health quality, and it is prone to desert and hyper-arid climatic conditions. Lack of proper land-use planning and adequate information on soil resources has resulted in many of the present-day land degradation problems not being solved. These are severe erosion in catchments leading to siltation of reservoirs, salinity/alkalinity and waterlogging in command areas, etc. To compensate for the natural resource requirements of the ever-increasing population, land degradation neutrality is gaining importance,” he adds.

Green wall: A wall to stop a desert?

The Aravalli, the oldest mountain range of India has served the historic role of a ‘green wall’ to stop the desertification further. Being an old fold mountain, it is prone to natural erosion and human interventions are also aiding in its fast destruction. It has lost so much green cover that it is losing its ability to act as a natural barrier against the heat and dust that blows in from the west. In 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the Rajasthan government to stop illegal mining in the Aravalli region after the news that 31 hills in the Rajasthan state had vanished.

Thus, Environmentalist Vijaypal Baghel at the 14th COP of UNCCD held at New Delhi (2019) proposed the Green Wall of India initiative, which was considered by the government (though there haven’t been any official statements yet). Inspired by the African experiment in the Sahel region (that is being experimented as a strategy to check the expansion of the Sahara region), the Green wall of India is being planned to act as a barrier against furthering the desertification. It would be 1400 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide green belt from Porbandar in Gujarat to Panipat in Delhi-Haryana border. “Presently, the proposal accepted by the government doesn’t cover the Aravalli or the Shivalik range, which we had recommended. This will completely stop desertification. It will be like an insulating barrier from the desert storms. It may take up to 10 years and over 135 crore trees. Though the Great Green Wall of Sahara is yet incomplete (15% as per UNCCD), small model projects have shown positive results,” says Greenman Vijaypal Baghel, the President of Paryavaran Sachetak Samiti.

In this regard, Dr Sharma comments: “The role of the Aravalli range to stop the spread of desertification is crucial for the eastern part of Rajasthan. It acts as a protective wall (guardian) for the eastern Rajasthan topography. Its presence ceases the sandstorms, dust storms, and high-velocity winds that protect soil, lives, and agriculture. Its length belongs to Delhi in the north and Gujarat in the south. Therefore, it protects the whole eastern region (Rajasthan) as well as the central part of India (Delhi, some parts of Haryana, and UP). The green wall of India (the Aravalli range) aids in stopping the dentification further as well as controlling regional climatic conditions in a positive manner. But the current need for immediate restoration of Aravalli itself, which is naturally a green wall of India instead of a new proposal which is not favourable and too much costly also.”

Desertification and Land Degradation are impacting the desert ecosystem as a whole.  Biodiversity- flora and fauna what is at stake?

Dr Sharma comments: “Desertification is the output of land degradation, which affects the ecosystem from a local to a global level. It highly impacts the region’s biodiversity statistics. Also, their vegetational growth is minimized, so livestock and small organisms shift to potentially vulnerable regions due to desertification.”

The study takes this into account: “Because of varied habitats and ecosystems, the vegetation, human culture, and animal life in this arid region are very diverse compared to other deserts in the world. About 23 species of lizards and 25 species of snakes are native to the region. Some wildlife species that are fast vanishing in other parts of India are found in the desert in large numbers, including the blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), chinkara (Gazella bennettii), red fox (Vulpes vulpes pusilla), and many reptiles dwell there too (Rahmani, and Soni, 1997). The region has 141 migratory and resident desert birds, including harriers, falcons, buzzards, kestrels, and vultures. The Indian peafowl is a resident breeder in the Thar region. The natural vegetation of this dry area comes under as north-western thorn scrub forest occurring in small clumps scattered more or less openly. The natural vegetation of the Thar Desert is composed of trees, shrubs, and herb species, mainly including Acacia jacquemontii, Prosopis cineraria, Ziziphus nummularia, Calotropis procera, Suaeda fruticosa, Euphorbia neriifolia, Capparis decidu, Commiphora mukul, Clerodendrum multiflorum, Leptadenia pyrotechnica, Dactyloctenium scindicum, Tribulus terrestris, Cynodon dactylon, Eragrostis species, Phragmites species. The most notable example of a well-preserved ecosystem is the "Desert National Park" in Jaisalmer, which provides an outstanding example of the region’s natural wildlife.” Khejri Prosopis cineraria is commonly found, which is revered and protected by the local communities specially the 'Bishnois’.

As per the UNESCO World Heritage Site Network: “The Desert National Park is the most important site for the long-term survival of the Globally Threatened Great Indian Bustard and other endemic fauna and flora. Other birds of significance include the endangered Oriental White-backed vulture Gyps bengalensis and Long-billed Gyps indicus, Stoliczka's Bushchat Saxicola macrorhyncha, Green Munia Amandava formosa MacQueen's or Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis maqueeni. Eleven bird species representative of Biome-13 have been identified by BirdLife International. The Thar desert is rich in herpetofauna, being the home of 11% of the 456 reptile species found in India. The prominent among them are Toad-headed Agama, Sindh Awl-headed Snake, Indian Spiny-tailed Lizard, Dwarf Gecko, Persian Gecko, Desert Monitor and Saw-scaled Viper.”

Ecosystem Restoration and Sustainable Land Management: Building Back Better

In 2021 UNCCD collaborated with World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT) to publish a report entitled 'Restoring Life to the Land: The Role of Sustainable Land Management in Ecosystem Restoration'. If 2006 was declared the International Year of Deserts and Desertification by the United Nations, the 2021-2030 is the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (UNDER)'.

“The UNDER focuses on balancing ecological, social and developmental priorities in landscapes where different forms of land use interact, with the aim of fostering long-term resilience.1 As the world grapples with the legacy of COVID-19, functional ecosystems are essential in our efforts to “build back better” and help avoid future emergence of infectious diseases. Sustainable land management is key to restoration of terrestrial ecosystems: it is at the core of maintaining, or re-establishing, life in the land. through combatting land degradation at farm and landscape level. Land degradation can be avoided, reduced and/or reversed, contributing to all the land degradation neutrality commitments made by countries. Sustainable land management has been demonstrated to play a central role in restoration of all the UNDER ecosystems, through combatting land degradation at both local and landscape level. When effectively implemented, it simultaneously generates multiple environmental co-benefits. On farmlands and grasslands in particular, effective SLM also raises and stabilizes yields of crops and livestock, and thus directly benefits livelihoods. It is the vital link that connects production with restoration,” states Mira Haddad, Research Associate, ICARDA, who has also contributed to the above-mentioned report.

The UNDER categorically lists the benefits of such an initiative: “Between now and 2030, the restoration of degraded terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems could generate US$ 9 trillion in ecosystem services. Restoration could also remove 13 to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The economic benefits of such interventions exceed ten times the cost of investment, whereas inaction is at least three times more costly than ecosystem restoration.”

Land Degradation Neutrality: A Categorical Imperative

UNCCD defines Land Degradation Neutrality as: “A state whereby the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems.”

Land degradation neutrality (LDN), which is integral to SDG target 15.3, is a no-net-loss approach designed to maintain or enhance the land resource base, which is the stock of natural capital associated with land resources and the ecosystem services that flow from them. LDN describes the target of ensuring that land degradation is at least held under control – and land is improved as much as possible. Contributing to achieving LDN by 2030 through national voluntary LDN targets is embraced by the UNCCD 2018-2030 Strategic Framework,13 which seeks to improve the livelihoods of more than 1.3 billion people, and reduce the impacts of drought on vulnerable populations. The LDN “response hierarchy” of Avoid > Reduce > Reverse land degradation is the overarching principle for LDN implementation, which guides decision-makers in planning interventions to achieve LDN.

Delivering the keynote address at the UN High-level Dialogue on Desertification, Land degradation and Drought, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated: “In last 10 years, around 3 million hectares of forest cover added in India, enhancing the combined forest cover to almost one-fourth of the country's total area. India is on track to achieve its national commitment of Land degradation neutrality. Restoration of 26 million hectares of degraded land aimed by 2030 to achieve an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent
Centre of Excellence is being set up in Dehradun, India to promote a scientific approach towards land degradation issues. It is our sacred duty to leave a healthy planet for our future generations.” Despite the tall promises, data from the Land Degradation Atlas states otherwise. Even the State of India’s Environment report, 2017 calculates that nearly 30 per cent of India is degraded or facing desertification. By contrast, this far outweighs the forest cover, which is nearly one fourth.

“Yet, in 2019, India became part of the “Bonn Challenge”, a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030. India’s pledge is one of the largest in Asia. Schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, Soil Health Card Scheme, Soil Health Management Scheme and Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana are seen as prongs to tackle this land degradation. Hope is what one can cling on to,” states Gowtham Shastry from the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, Bangalore.


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