on June 11th, 2021

On the 17th of June, the United Nations will observe World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, an annual event that raises awareness of the presence of desertification and drought, highlighting methods of preventing desertification and recovering from drought.

Desertification and drought are two closely related occurrences. However, while drought is a natural happening, desertification is driven by un-adapted human activity in combination with land and climatic constraints.

The increasing effects of climate change are expected to increase the frequency, duration, and severity of these phenomena in many parts of the world. This may lead to an accelerated rate of land degradation which, in turn, is likely to increase poverty for already struggling communities.

To prevent the effects of these damaging environmental circumstances, engineers play a valuable role in developing innovative solutions that can help in the fight against both desertification and drought.

Land impacted by drought
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
What the 2021 Observance Entails

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has declared the focus of the 2021 World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought Day on turning degraded land into healthy land. Restoring degraded land brings economic resilience, creates jobs, raises incomes, and increases food security.  

According to UNCCD, nearly three quarters of the Earth’s ice-free land has been altered by humans to meet an ever-growing demand for food, raw materials, highways and homes. The effect on ecosystems has been vast, and not only has it accelerated climate change, but it has also caused desertification where large swathes of land have become unproductive. This land is then more susceptible to climate insecurities, extreme weather conditions and also won’t aid basic human needs.

The Difference Between Desertification and Drought

At its core, drought is a natural phenomenon. While humanity’s influence on climate change has increased their occurrence and severity, droughts have been recorded for hundreds of years. Desertification is when the land has become unproductive due to human occupation or changes in biodomes.

Inappropriate land use, such as deforestation or overexploitation of water resources, can cause land degradations that can be further aggravated by drought. Due to their natural climate, these occurrences are mostly present in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas of the world.

The European Union (EU) Science Hub maintains that although drought and desertification are different, they play off each other, and lead to a list of global shortfalls like food or crop insecurities, volatile economic situations, and the overuse of natural resources. It can also harm fragile ecosystems, making them tricky or impossible to rehabilitate.

Both are complex phenomena that can sometimes be interchangeable, but to counter-act both the EU agrees with UNCCD that there should be international implementations like pro-active risk management. The interchangeability between the draught and desertification is one of the reasons the EU has started to map both occurrences to help look for solutions. The World Atlas of Desertification and European Drought Observance are valuable resources that show how both these occurrences are experienced around the world.

Mapping the Road Ahead

Infrastructure that incorporates degenerated areas has major value in the de-desertification chain. According to the World Atlas of Desertification, road networks reflect demographical changes and where economies are focused. The mobility of humanity leads to major urbanization, and infrastructure leads to economic development. When it is pinned in one area, other areas face a greater risk of desertification due to rapid urbanization.

The Atlas notes that the last century is noteworthy for the continued construction of roadways, railway systems, and other means of transport. This has been a major role-player in the modification of landscapes. The destruction of natural habitats as well as the changes in biogeochemical cycles and the flow of humans created a certain amount of stress on land that leads to degrading.

The Atlas cites that the state of Rondônia in Brazil, which is part of the Amazon Basin, is one of the most deforested parts of the Amazon. In terms of desertification, Brazilian frontier settlement: The case of Rondônia. Population and Environment, says that although initially successful at growing a population in Rondônia, the land is now overproduced.

Deforestation has induced desertification in parts of the Amazon Rainforest
Amazon Rainforest in Anavilhanas National Park, Amazonas – Brazil

The paper credits the lack of infrastructure support as well as financial shortfalls for the area’s current state.  Many new immigrants cleared their land in the 70s and 80s and then sold the land, never developing it for agricultural purposes and destroying the natural growth that was there initially. Road infrastructure still leads to the area but also shows migration back to urbanized areas.

In arid and semi-arid lands, often found in Africa, there is well-established smallholder agriculture where a small number of people in low-density areas are dependent on land. This leads to overexploitation of the land because it is one of the only resources available. In this situation, civil engineering and the expansion of infrastructure, especially roads, lead to the improvement of basic services. Roads can then also lead to migration and land can become unproductive.

According to the Atlas, global road networks reflect demographic changes, land usage, and the intensification of agriculture which in turn could be helpful to plan the counterbalancing of desertification and predict future economic growth.

Women planting trees to help combat desertification
Building the Wall

Cited as The Great Green Wall (GGW), a mega-barrier could be the largest planted conservation project in the history of mankind. The wall will create a vast barrier against climate change in a precious transitional zone in Africa, between the Sahara Desert to the north and humid savannas to the south on the continent.

The Wall aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land in Northern Africa and create 100 million jobs in the wall’s catchment area. It could also sequester an expected 250 million tonnes of carbon according to the Great Green Wall Organization.

The wall, expected to be fully planted by 2030 is one of the extraordinary initiatives in the fight against poverty and building food security in the Sahel region, which spans from Mauritania in the west through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and ending in Eritrea on the west of Africa.

According to GGW, the project has received over USD $14,126 billion to fast track the restoration of degraded land and save biodiversity. The GGW Initiative spans 8000km and provides policy solutions to various and decidedly complex environmental threats like land degradation, desertification, drought, climate change as well as poverty, and food insecurities.

Since its inception in 2007, the GGW saw 12 million drought-resistant trees planted in Senegal, 15 million hectares of degraded land restored in Ethiopia, and 13 million hectares of land rehabilitated in Burkina Faso. Other countries that managed to restore degraded land through planting initiatives include Nigeria and Niger. In Niger, the 5 million hectares of land restored saw an increase of 500,000 tonnes of grains produced in the country.

Solutions That Make a Difference

Notably, similar to the rest of the world, China has also been facing the negative impact of proliferating land degradation. The country has lost almost 24 percent of its land area to the encroaching desert since the 1950s. To surmount this issue, China has taken several steps which are yielding encouraging outcomes so far.

Engineering and Technological Measures for Combating Desertification mentions how China has yielded excellent results in control measures when it comes to desertification. Control measures have included mechanical technologies that stabilize shifting sands as well as technologies that release sand accumulation, chemical mulching, and hydraulic solutions.

Furthermore, the reduction of wind speed has been effective in combatting erosion along railway lines. In the Tengger Desert, sand often disrupts train services due to sand storms or erosion. As a result of this, the Baotou-Lanzhou Railway gave way to the country’s first research stations to control desertification.

One of the main areas to combat disruptive sand was straws to reduce wind speed. Straws are planted in a checkerboard pattern along railway lines and act as a wind barrier – and have been effective ever since. Local communities along the railway line help maintain the straw, which has been fruitful in allowing movement in trains.

Checkerboard sand barriers in China to combat desertification
People make straw checkerboard sand barriers in Gulang County, northwest China’s Gansu Province, March 5, 2020. /Xinhua

Smart water reserve systems that retain groundwater are also effective against desertification and aids drought-stricken areas. These systems track water demand and ensure better management, which monitors the overall cycle of water use. Smart water systems and networks can then help to reduce non-revenue water, water demands and provide better management and monitoring of the overall water cycle. This reduces water stress and can aid the regeneration of land that was previously overproduced.

Moving forward, engineers are even looking towards artificial intelligence. AI robots have been designed that can track desertification help to pinpoint areas with the most concern. One of the main robots today is the RHex.

The robot’s design is based on cockroaches and its sturdy design makes it perfect for any terrain. The RHex is equipped with sensors that measure wind flow and sizes up sand granules that blow through the air. It then provides data on what size grains can be picked up by wind which can then aid other drawing-board solutions to deter sand from being eroded.

Influencing the Future of Desertification and Drought

Today, the UN estimates that more than two billion hectares of previously productive land are degraded. They further estimate that an additional 300 million hectares of land will be needed by 2030 to accommodate the needs of our growing global population.

Desertification has led to a change in ecosystems. It’s estimated that 70% of ecosystems have been transformed and that will increase to 90% by 2050 without action. Industries desperately need to aid the curbing of desertification to ensure a healthy and sustainable environment.

To help achieve the restoration of our lands, the engineering industry needs to focus on approaches that promote the sustainability of ecosystem services. Addressing desertification is critical and without a change in attitudes and active innovation, the effects will be irreversible.

From sustainable land use to locally suitable technology, it is still possible to make a difference and relieve environmental pressures. It is important to make sure that every one of us remains committed to combatting drought and desertification, to ensure a healthy and thriving future for all areas of the world.


United Nations. World Day to Combat Desertification and drought. [online] Available at:

http//:www.un.org/en/observances/desertification-day [Accessed on 24 May]

European Union, EU Science Hub. Desertification and drought. [online] Available at:  ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/research-topic/desertification-and-drought [Accessed May 24]

Cherlet, M., Hutchinson, C., Reynolds, J., Hill, J., Sommer, S., von Maltitz, G. (Eds.), World Atlas of Desertification, Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2018.

Masoudi, M., Jokar, P., and Pradhan, B.: A new approach for land degradation and desertification assessment using geospatial techniques, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 1133–1140. https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-18-1133-2018, 2018.

P.F. Reich, S.T. Numbem, R.A. Almaraz and H. Eswaran. 2001. Land resource stresses and desertification in Africa. In:Bridges, E.M., I.D. Hannam, L.R. Oldeman, F.W.T. Pening de Vries, S.J. Scherr, and S. Sompatpanit (eds.). Responses to Land Degradation. Proc. 2nd. International Conference on Land Degradation and Desertification, Khon Kaen, Thailand. Oxford Press, New Delhi, India.

Goza, Franklin. (1994). Brazilian frontier settlement: The case of Rondônia. Population and Environment. 16. 37-60. 10.1007/BF02208002.

Great Green Wall, 2021. PRESS RELEASE – Great Green Wall receives over $14 billion to regreen the Sahel – France, World Bank listed among donors

[online] Available at: https://www.greatgreenwall.org/news#resources [Accessed 27 May]

Gao Z., Li C., Yang X., Ci L. (2010) Engineering and Technological Measures for Combating Desertification. In: Desertification and Its Control in China. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-01869-5_9

Idris Medugu, N.Rafee Majid, M. and Johar, F. (2011), “Drought and desertification management in arid and semi-arid zones of Northern Nigeria”, Management of Environmental Quality, Vol. 22 No. 5, pp. 595-611. https://doi.org/10.1108/14777831111159725

Down to Earth, 2021. How communities in China helped keep desertification at bay. [online] Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/how-communities-in-china-helped-keep-desertification-at-bay-66542

Dar, 2020. World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. [online] Available at: dar.com/news/details/world-day-to-combat-desertification-and-drought- [Accessed 28 May]

Feifei Qian, Douglas J. Jerolmack, Nicholas Lancaster, George Nikolich, Paul B. Reverdy, Sonia F. Roberts, Thomas F. Shipley, Robert Scott Van pelt, Ted M. Zobeck, and Daniel E. Koditschek, “Ground robotic measurement of aeolian processes”, Aeolian Research 27, 1-11. August 2017. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aeolia.2017.04.004

Altendorfer, Richard & Moore, Edward & Komsuoglu, Haldun & Buehler, Martin & Brown, H.B. & McMordie, D. & Saranli, U. & RJ, Full & Koditschek, Daniel. (2001). RHex: A Biologically Inspired Hexapod Runner. Autonomous Robots. 11. 207–213. 10.1023/A:1012426720699.

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