Land degradation: A creeping danger

Land is probably the most used natural resource in the world. There are very, very few places on land that humans haven’t yet used in some way for our activities (directly or indirectly). Among the variety of uses, the ones that top the list in terms of extent and intensity are agriculture and urban development. The magnitude of work under these projects have been increasing drastically, largely due to increases demands of a growing population. If you want to house, feed and entertain 7 billion people, you have to get more out of the limited land we have!

While we have met these demands to a large extent, meeting these demands have been costly. It has lead to a phenomenon called land degradation. The term is familiar to you, I’m sure. But are the causes and implications as familiar?

In a series of posts on this topic, I plan to cover the causes of land degradation and its implications on the environment and human society. I will also talk about ways to restore lost land, and these posts will be featured under the “Restoration Ecology” category of the blog.

What is land degradation?

It is simply the loss of land (and associated features like soil, landscape etc). This is an extremely simple explanation to a problem that has governments and scientists scratching their heads. Technically, land is not “lost”. The definition implies that land cannot be used for the 6 main functions it performs (human and natural).

The 6 main functions of land (and soil).

Land degradation involves change in the properties of land and soil (texture, color, grain size) and its functions (water holding capacity, infiltration, supporting plant life). More often than not, the changes are negative. Land degradation causes land and soil process to stop completely or function in a stunted way.

Does land degradation happen naturally?

Of course it does. Like every other process on earth, the growth of soil cover on land and its loss happens naturally too. The common natural causes of degradation include natural calamities like landslides, droughts, floods and natural ecosystem processes that eventually convert land into a desert. The difference? They happen much, much slower than when humans are involved.

Human induced land degradation-The BIG PICTURE

While many recognized reasons for land degradation exist, I’d like to throw some light on the biggest reason why we are facing this crisis today. That reason is overpopulation.

Simply put, overpopulation is causing a massive positive feedback.

More people —> more food, space required —> more deforestation, use of pesticides/fertilizers and all activities that directly cause land degradation —> more land utilized —> economic growth and prosperity —> ability to support more people.

Land degradation has been a problem only since the late 20th century. In the 19th century and earlier, while we did clear forests and expand our agricultural capabilities, the extent was always limited because there simply weren’t that many people around. It’s only in the late 20th century, with increasing population that we have had to drastically modernize our agricultural practices and bring more land under the urban banner. This, naturally (or not), has grown into a problem.

Due to our need to support the huge (and growing) population, we have employed a variety of techniques that have hastened land degradation. They are-

  1. Deforestation.
  2. Overgrazing.
  3. Use of chemicals in agriculture.
  4. Over-irrigation.
  5. Improper chemical waste disposal.
  6. Erosion (as a cause of improper agricultural practices and deforestation).
  7. Droughts and Floods (although natural, are still causes of land degradation).
  8. Urbanization.
Land degradation Map of India

Each of these causes merit a post of their own, and I will give them that honor. Stay tuned for more!






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