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3. Who is affected by desertification?

  • 3.1 What is the geographical extent of desertification?
  • 3.2 How vulnerable are affected populations?
  • 3.3 Do impacts of desertification extend beyond drylands?

"Desertification occurs on all continents except Antarctica and affects the livelihoods of millions of people, including a large proportion of the poor in drylands. Assessments of the extent of desertification vary, but even by conservative estimates it ranks among today’s greatest environmental challenges with serious local and global impacts."

3.1 What is the geographical extent of desertification?

Desertification takes place in drylands all over the world. Some 10 to 20% of drylands may already be degraded; this represents 6 to 12 million square kilometers. The exact proportion of drylands currently undergoing desertification is difficult to estimate mainly because the few assessments made so far take into account different data which leads to a very wide range of estimates.

Since all drylands are potentially threathened by desertification, and that it could affect a very large number of people, desertification clearly ranks among the greatest environmental problems of today. More...

3.2 How vulnerable are affected populations?

On average, compared to the rest of the world, dryland populations lag far behind in terms of human well-being and development indicators, and 90% of them live in developing countries.

The per capita income (GNP) of OECD countries is almost ten times greater than that of developing dryland countries. Similarly, the average infant mortality rate for all dryland developing countries reaches about 54 per 1000, which is ten times higher than the average infant mortality rate in industrial countries. (Figure 2.1)

The level of poverty of dryland populations varies with the level of aridity and from region to region. The low level of human well-being is worsened by the high population growth rates in drylands and by a number of policy factors such as the slow growth of health and education infrastructure, facilities, and services. The situation is worst in various parts of the drylands of Asia and Africa which lag well behind drylands in the rest of the world.

Dryland populations are often marginalized both socially and politically due to their impoverishment and remoteness from decision-making centres. They are thus unable to play an effective role in the decision making processes that affect them and are more vulnerable to factors of change like drought. More...

3.3 Do impacts of desertification extend beyond drylands?

A couple walks home during a dust storm in Xinlinhot (Inner Mongolia)
A couple walks home during a dust storm in Xinlinhot, China
Source: MA

Desertification has environmental impacts outside of the areas in which it is occuring. For instance, desertification processes and reduction of vegetation can lead to the formation of airborne particles affecting cloud formation and rainfall patterns etc. Large dust clouds can have impacts not only locally but also thousands of kilometres away from their point of origin, affecting air quality and causing health problems in more densely populated areas. Finally, reduction of vegetation cover in drylands leads to destructive floods downstream and excessive clay and silt loads in water reservoirs, wells, river deltas, river mouths, and coastal areas often located outside the drylands.

The social and political impacts of desertification also reach non-dryland areas. For instance, the movement of people from drylands to other areas can exacerbate urban sprawl and bring about internal and cross-border social, ethnic, and political frictions. Desertification-induced movement of people may harm local, regional, and even global political and economic stability and encourage foreign intervention. More...

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