A common narrative about the expansion of deserts is fundamentally misguided


Photo credit: IIED

A key characteristic of dryland environments is their variability. Rural dryland communities have learned how to endure and exploit this (Photo: IIED)

The end of desertification?

Two experts with long experience of drylands research argue that a common narrative about the expansion of deserts is fundamentally misguided.

Decades of low rainfall and severe drought in the Sahel from the late 1960s to the 1990s were the most dramatic example of climate variability in the 20th century. Until recently one word – desertification – summarised the causes and effects of these droughts.

From the 1970s onwards, it was the Horn of Africa and Sahel droughts that introduced desertification to a worldwide audience. Eventually this created political pressure to forge an international convention and permanent United Nations agency to combat desertification, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertificiation (UNCCD).

This effort to combat desertification continues today. The UN Environment Assembly – the highest level of governance of international environmental affairs in the UN system – is currently processing a major policy statement on combating desertification, land degradation and drought, and promoting sustainable pastoralism and rangelands (PDF).

But all this work poses a problem. There is now overwhelming evidence that neither local land mismanagement nor overpopulation caused the Sahel droughts at the end of the 20th century, nor did these activities set in motion a self-reinforcing process of environmental decline.

Read the full article: IIED


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.