Globally, desertification affects approximately 70% of drylands, and 73% of Africa’s agricultural lands are degraded. According to
    the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, approximately, 91% of South Africa’s landscape is drylands, and this
    makes it susceptible to desertification. Both desertification and land degradation are intricately linked to food security, poverty,
    urbanisation, climate change and biodiversity and are, thus, among the most critical environmental challenges in South Africa.
    In addition, 80% of the land in South Africa is used for agriculture and subsistence livelihoods; 11% of this (12.76 million ha) has
    arable potential, of which 82% is under commercial agriculture with the majority (69%) being used for grazing.
    South Africa is a relatively dry country, with an average annual rainfall of about 464 mm, compared to a world average of about 860
    mm. While the Western Cape receives most of its rainfall in winter, the rest of the country is generally a summer-rainfall region.
    South Africa’s surface area covers approximately 1 219 602 km2 and, considered a “mega-diverse” country, forms part of a select
    group of nations that possess the greatest number and diversity of animals and plants (nearly 70% of global species diversity).
    However, the country continues to face threats to food production due to the impacts of climate change linked to meteorological
    hazards (for example floods and frequent droughts), as well as loss of productive land due to land-degradation processes such
    as soil erosion and desertification.
    Soil degradation is severe and increasing in most communal cropland and grazing lands while sheet and gully erosion cover about
    0.72 million ha of the country and is increasing. Water erosion is the most widespread problem affecting over 70% of the country.
    About 25% of South Africa is highly susceptible to wind erosion with an estimated 2.2 million ha already severely affected by wind
    erosion by 1985. This proportion has more than doubled due to the dry period leading up to 2013-2015. Areas particularly prone to
    wind erosion include the western half of croplands in western Free State and the greater part of the North West and the Northern
    Cape provinces (DEA, 2016a).
    South Africa, being one of the countries that are affected by desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) which dates
    back to the last century, ratified the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in September 1997. This
    convention provides a framework for countries affected by desertification and drought to address the problem of land degradation
    effectively through the development of National Action Programmes (NAPs) in accordance with Articles 9 and 10 of the convention
    (UNCCD, 2008).
    The UNCCD’s 10-year Strategy and Framework to enhance the implementation thereof was adopted by Decision 3/COP8
    dated September 2007 in Madrid, Spain. This strategy aims to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification
    and degradation in order to reduce poverty and support environmental sustainability while presenting a major opportunity to
    address the underlying causes of land degradation. Importantly, country parties were encouraged “to align and review their action
    programmes and other relevant implementation activities relating to the Convention with the Strategy by, inter alia, addressing the
    outcomes under the five operational objectives” (UNCCD, 2008) in order to enhance the implementation of the convention and
    to give effect to other relevant decisions and resolutions contained therein The current draft revision of South Africa’s NAP is the
    expression of our government’s commitment to honour its obligations in terms of the UNCCD.
    Land is important for producing food and providing ecosystem goods and services such as fresh water, clean air and raw building
    materials such as timber and sand. Productive land and fertile soil are very important and many communities depend heavily
    thereon as their main source of food and sustainable livelihoods, especially the rural poor. Productive land is, however, becoming
    scarce. Population growth, climate change, unsustainable land use, land degradation and growing urban areas increase pressure
    on productive land resources. Competition for productive land increases due to the growing demand for food, fodder and mineral
    resources, as well as raw materials for industrial and energy use. Land is central to the “nexus” that links energy, food, water
    and environmental health in an interdependent loop. Continued land degradation over the years could reduce food production
    when population growth, rising incomes and changing consumption patterns are expected to increase food demand significantly.
    By 2030, the demand for food, energy and water is expected to increase significantly. These needs will not be met sustainably
    unless we preserve and restore the productivity of our land. Furthermore, a “business as usual” approach will lead to even more
    deforestation (UNCCD, 2015).
    According to the UNCCD, desertification is defined as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from
    various factors including climatic variations and human activities; whereas land degradation refers to any depletion of biodiversity
    and ecosystem functioning that negatively impacts the provision of ecosystem services and ultimately impedes poverty eradication
    and sustainable development (DEA, 2016a). Therefore, desertification is a natural phenomenon exacerbated by human activities.
    (UNCCD, 2008). Currently, degradation of the earth’s land surface through human activities is negatively impacting the well-being
    of at least 3.2 billion people, pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction, and costing more than 10 % of the annual
    global gross product in loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES, 2018).

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

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