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The Threatening Desert: Alan Grainger on the Desertification of the World

Flat desert 4.jpeg

Much of the world is turning into a desert.

The United Nations estimates that 24% of the world’s territory is degrading either from temperate to semiarid or from semiarid to desert. 167 countries are affected by desertification. 12 million hectares of land, an area the size of Benin, is lost to desertification every year. Each year this represents enough land to produce 20 million tons worth of grain.


Losing that much land is not good in a world with rising population.


It is also a source of massive political instability. The people who used to live on that land now find themselves without sustenance. Farmers can’t farm when their land goes dry. Herders can’t herd when there is no forage for the animals.


Economic desperation makes the edges of deserts socially unstable. The Taliban is based in desertifying sections of Afghanistan. ISIS was based in desertifying sections of Syria and Iraq. The desert is growing both in Yemen and Somalia – countries with ongoing or recent civil wars. The Sahara is expanding South in Northern Nigeria – the home of Boko Harum, Chad – a constant source of mercenary soldiers and the Sudan – the locations of the wars in South Sudan and Darfur. As the desert kills the economies of these regions, the population turns to warlordism and raiding as one of the last remaining pragmatic strategies for survival.


Why is the desert expanding? A very lucid explanation can be found in Alan Grainger’s 1990 The Threatening Desert: Controlling Desertification. (Earthscan Publishers). Obviously in a book this old, some features will be out of date. The discussion of global warming is primitive; most of the relevant work in climate science had not been done yet. The estimates of desertification were too modest by far; the population of these areas had not yet risen to modern crisis levels of unsustainability.


But for a basic explanation of the science behind desertification, The Threatening Desert is hard to beat. What are the causes of desertification?


1. Soil Degeneration. Some of the land destruction that occurs at the edge of deserts is caused by general all-purpose destruction of the soil. These practices would ruin land whether the plot in question was next to a desert or not.

A. Population Growth Cutting into the Time Land is Allowed to Lie Fallow. Agricultural land anywhere requires a certain number of fallow years to allow the soil to recover from the leaching of nutrients that is intrinsic to farming. As population increases over the same volume of land, farmers need greater and greater yields in order to feed the people living on the farmland. Rising food requirements push farmers to plant crops for more years than they should, cutting into regenerative fallow time. As the soil has fewer and fewer nutrients, it supports less and less plant cover. Without plant cover, loess is exposed to open air. Wind and rain erode the topsoil, causing land to be lost forever.

B. Population Growth Promoting Cultivation of Land That Should Not Be Farmed in the First Place. Some land should not be farmed because it has very low regenerative capacity, and high propensity to erosion and exhaustion. Population increase moves more farmers onto these superfragile terrains. Plus, political factors such as the creation of large private estates and ranches, push former farmers that had been previously on sustainable land onto new more marginal less sustainable land. When this land gets farmed, it becomes destroyed.

C. Poorly Conceived Introduction of New Cash Crops or Advanced Agronomic Techniques. The new super-farms created by urban investors are not very sustainable. New cash crops, mechanized farming and the use of fertilizer-intense techniques increase the yields and profitability of land over the short term. The new technologies are often instituted by urban investors or government specialists who are not familiar with the ecological limits of the terrain they are developing. The people who know how to take care of lowlands are pushed off the lowlands. The people who now control lowlands destroy them.


2. Overgrazing of ground cover. What keeps the water in the soil is ground cover. The roots of plants hold water in the topsoil and keep it from percolating down to lower inaccessible levels. Furthermore, plants that are edible either by humans or by animals do not necessarily have the lowest water requirements. As land dries out from loss of ground cover, other species invade that are better capable of surviving at low moisture levels. The dry weeds kill off the forage, making the rangelands unusable. What causes overgrazing?

A. Overpopulation. More people. More herds. This is the headline story.

B. A More Minor Consideration: Loss of Traditional Trade Routes by Former Desert Traders. Modern commerce has replaced caravans crossing the desert. With that loss, the old desert nomads have to provide all of their sustenance from herding rather than traditional trade. This has forced them to increase their herd size leading to more loss of ground cover.

C. A Bigger Consideration: Loss of Rangeland to Farming and Large Estates. Just as small farmers were crowded off of good land by investors creating plantations, the herders are crowded off rangeland by investors creating farms. The herds are forced onto marginal lands that can not support foraging. The animals eat the ground cover and the land is destroyed.


3) Perverse effects of water management.

A. Non-Maintenance of Irrigation Systems.  If irrigation systems are not maintained, the land that is being irrigated dries out. One obvious consideration is that clogged collapsed water systems don’t transmit any water. The less obvious but more dangerous factor consideration is that irrigation systems also require field drainage. In the short term, too much water can be more destructive than too little. If irrigation water is not spread around evenly and limited, the soil underneath becomes waterlogged. It becomes too thick and heavy to cultivate well. Worse, the surplus water, instead of being conserved in a well, concentrates in topsoil and evaporates off. As the surplus water evaporates, the soil becomes saline and increasingly infertile. Grainger provides many examples of irrigation projects that destroyed the land underneath them because the conduits were not maintained and the land turned to salt.  

B. The Perverse Effects of Wells. In lands that are short of water, people drill wells. In theory, this ought to counter desertification. However, wells often attract populations along with their herds. Settlement concentrates around the new wells. The animals destroy the ground cover.

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So what are the solutions for these problems?


Actually, stopping desertification is pretty simple.

A. Control the Size of the Population. Family planning and birth control can do a lot to reduce and manage the size of the human population. If you manage the size of the human population, you manage the size of the animal population. Both farming and herding are kept within sustainable limits.

B. Control the Size of the Population

C. Control the Size of the Population. (Okay, Grainger emphasizes better agricultural technology more than he does human fertility reduction. But he is fully sympathetic to the need to reduce demographic pressure.)

D. Plant Trees. Trees hold water in the soil. The more trees and forest, the more water there is in the soil for farming and herding. Trees need to be planted in large numbers.

E. Repair and maintain irrigation systems to insure adequate drainage.

F. Use wells, cisterns and trenchwork designs that minimize evaporation and loss.

G. Use crops and animal breeds that are more water efficient. Agronomists and livestock specialists have developed many breeds that are more sustainable in drier climates.

H. Plant more sustainable forage plants on rangeland.


None of this is especially difficult or expensive. Under normal conditions, it should be possible to completely turn back the tide of global desertification through a mixture of improved family planning and improved use of agricultural technology.

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Why isn’t this happening? Grainger is relatively restrained and diplomatic about this question. I will be substantially more blunt.

Desertification continues because of war and systematic political failure.


The political consequences of desertification have led to non-stop civil war and internal disorder in the areas most effected by water loss. No one is going to be digging better wells or experimenting with better breeds of goats when there is constant terrorist activity. If all the young men are in militias firing mortars at rival groups, no one will be rearranging stones in the fields to provide better levels of overall drainage. Bringing in international experts to introduce new forage crops is less likely to happen when those international experts are highly likely to be kidnapped.


Peacetime reduces many of the obstacles to sustainability but not all of them. Many of the governments in countries with desertification are primarily concerned with their urban economies, and maintaining the standards of living for themselves and their political allies. These states are often “rentier” governments – regimes in which office holders are more concerned about maintaining their access to foreign assets and monopolizing scarce resources than actually increasing national rates of economic growth. When they do take an interest in the rural economy, such interest takes the form of creating large mega-estates that they or their allies can control, and intensively planting cash crops that generate high short-term rates of return. There is substantial speculation in land and substantial flipping of properties. Ecological management of the land is a secondary priority. Local populations get displaced to more economically marginal holdings, leading to the overcultivation and overgrazing referred to in the previous discussion.


Social programs of any kind – education, road building or health care – are concentrated in large cities or in the provinces of the political allies of the regime. Desert areas don’t get family planning because desert areas don’t get social services at all.

*  *  *


The deserts are expanding, not because we don’t know how to stop them, but because nobody in power is terribly interested in stopping them.

The result is going to be a lot of immiseration.


The result is going to be a lot of war.

For More Information

The scientific and technical arguments made in this piece all come from Grainger’s Threatening Desert.

The more contemporary statistics on desertification come from the United Nations support staff for the Convention to Combat Desertification.

For a standard and fully serviceable treatment of rentier states, see Michael Ross’s 1999 article in World Politics. “Political Economy of the Resource Curse”.


For a sophisticated more complex and more damning take on rentier states, see the chapters on failed economic growth in Gilbert Achcar’s 2013. The People Want: Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising.

On internal war, its causes and its terrible effects on the environment, see the articles in Charles Closman’s 2009 collection War and the Environment: Military Destruction in the Modern Age.

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