Africa's Struggle with Desertification

(February 2001) Desertification is most severe in Africa. Arid lands account for two-thirds of the African continent, and three-quarters of the continent’s drylands that are used for agriculture have already begun to lose productivity. A total of 45 percent of Africa’s population lives in drylands that are susceptible to desertification, according to the United Nations Development Program’s Drylands Population Assessment II.

In Kenya, a three-year drought has withered crops and killed livestock, leaving thousands of people without adequate food supplies. Two-thirds of the country’s land has been severely affected by the drought, and over 40 percent of Kenya’s cattle and up to 20 percent of its sheep and goats have perished, according to the Arid Lands Resource Management Project, a government initiative.

In neighboring Tanzania, widespread tree felling threatens to transform much of the country’s forest into desert. In early January, Vice President Omar Ali Juma called attention to the worsening problem, noting that the country is losing between 320,000 and 1.2 million acres of forest land each year to the expansion of agricultural lands and to increased demand for fuelwood. Livestock herders also contribute to the deterioration of Tanzania’s forests by moving their herds from arid areas in the north to the vegetation- and water-rich forests of the south.

Forest fires can also be responsible for woodland degradation in dry regions. Fires, sometimes set to clear the land for agriculture, leave the soil susceptible to erosion and exposed to sunlight and other elements, which may change the makeup of the soil and prevent the tree species that once thrived there from regenerating. Fire can also place neighboring stands at risk as grazing animals move into new areas to find forage, intensifying the pressure on resources there and leading to overgrazing. Fire is a primary cause of desertification in the Sahel region of North Africa, where the degradation of drylands is especially pronounced.

The degradation of drylands in Africa is forcing people who can no longer make a living off the land to move to urban areas. According to the UN Population Division, the population of Lagos, Nigeria, will grow from 13.4 million in 2000 to 23.2 million in 2015, partly due to an influx of displaced rural communities. This trend can be observed in many other arid regions throughout the world. And as the populations of cities in or near drylands continue to rise, pressures on limited water resources increase as well. David Seckler at the International Water Management Institute estimates that 1 billion people will be living in countries facing absolute water scarcity by 2025.

April Reese is a freelance environmental journalist based in Washington, DC.

For More Information

For links to national action programs, as well as press releases and fact sheets on desertification visit the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.