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IFAD and desertification

Desertification is not the advance of deserts, though it can include the encroachment of sand dunes on land. Rather, it is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by human activities and climatic variations. Because of its toll on human well-being and on the environment, desertification ranks among the greatest development challenges of our time.

Desertification occurs when the tree and plant cover that binds the soil is removed. It occurs when trees and bushes are stripped away for fuelwood and timber, or to clear land for cultivation. It occurs when animals eat away grasses and erode topsoil with their hooves. It occurs when intensive farming depletes the nutrients in the soil. Wind and water erosion aggravate the damage, carrying away topsoil and leaving behind a highly infertile mix of dust and sand. It is the combination of these factors that transforms degraded land into desert.

There are many factors that contribute to desertification. Prolonged periods of drought can take a severe toll on the land. Conflict can force people to move into environmentally fragile areas, putting undue pressure on the land. Mining can cause damage. In the coming years, climate change will accelerate the rate of desertification in some areas, such as the drier areas of Latin America.



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Desertification key facts

  • Land degradation is often a cause and a consequence of rural poverty. Desertification can cause poverty, and poverty can cause further desertification.
  • The livelihoods of nearly one billion people in some 100 countries are threatened by desertification.
  • Desertification contributes to internal displacement and international migration of people.
  • About 25 per cent of the Earth's land, or 3.6 billion hectares, is desertified.
  • Every year about 12 million hectares worldwide are lost to land degradation, and the rate is increasing.
  • More than 1 billion people in China could face reduced freshwater availability because of climate change and population growth.
  • Every year desertification contributes to an estimated US$42 billion in lost incomes.
  • By the 2050s, 50 per cent of agricultural land in Latin America will be subject to desertification.


  • Weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso. Farmers say the rainy season that once began regularly in June is often delayed and when the rain finally does come the sudden force and volume of water can cause flooding and destroy crops. To help farmers adapt to these changes, a number of IFAD-supported projects are working together with farmers to develop soil and water retention techniques.

  • in this Episode of Hungry Planet: Three reports on agricultural cooperatives, a key to food security.

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