Overcoming Land Degradation

Land degradation (also called soil degradation) is growing into a major problem of the 21st century. While it threatens biodiversity and the living standards of other living species, the largest effect of this by far, is on human life. More importantly, land degradation has seriously taken a toll on the economic prosperity of many parts of the world. Africa and Asia continue to be the worst affected regions.

Plenty of research has gone into how to overcome land degradation. Some involve simple management practices, while other methods involve use of sophisticated technologies.

10 effective methods to overcome land degradation

  • The first and the most important step is to reduce all activities that cause land degradation in the first place. This includes deforestation, overgrazing, improper agricultural activities, mining, etc. Simply reducing the extent of these activities will prevent further land degradation.
  • Since soil erosion is seen as the largest cause of land degradation, efforts should be made to prevent this. Soil is effectively a non-renewable resource and takes thousands of years to replenish. There are many ways in which soil erosion can be prevented-
    • Afforestation- Areas prone to soil erosion can be planted with trees; especially trees that have a high root-shoot ratio and show high soil binding capacity. In fact,it doesn’t just have to be trees. Degraded lands around you can be improved by creating lawns and planting small plants as well. The results will be the same.
    • Reforestation- The difference is that here, we are regrowing a previously deforested area. This can recover land productivity before it is completely lost.
    • Restoration- Degraded lands need to be restored or reclaimed, in order to return it to a productive state. Restoring degraded land has a process we can follow to achieve this.
  • Agricultural losses amount to some of the largest losses of valuable land. Certain agricultural practices can prevent soil erosion very effectively.
  • Mulching- This is effective for wind as well as water erosion. Mulch is a layer of crop stubble, that is added as a protective layer over soil. It covers the soil and prevents evaporation and improves the organic matter of the soil. It also allows water to flow over it and keeps the soil underneath safe.
  • Contours and strip farming- This involves planting of crops perpendicular to the direction of flow of water, to keep the flow in check. It has proved to be very effective in controlling soil erosion.
  • Wind breaks- This is an agroforestry method of preventing soil erosion. Wind breaks are trees that are planted on the edges of agricultural land, that divert the direction of wind away from the fertile soil. The action of windbreaks work something like the picture below.
Wind breaks
  • Since we aren’t going to stop eating meat, it’s highly recommended that we change our grazing practices. One of the biggest reasons of overgrazing is the fact that cattle are not moved fast enough, causing them to graze the land to the roots. This removes all signs of vegetation and also all chances of a natural regeneration. Rangers need to ensure that they move their cattle swiftly after they have had as much as they should from a particular part of the land. This will allow pastures to regenerate.
  • Irrigation practices need to be modernized to tackle land degradation. Over-irrigation of land has not only increased soil erosion, it has also taken many of the fertilizers and pesticides into water resources and causing water pollution and biomagnification. Irrigation should be closely monitored and should be optimal for each crop produced. Advanced irrigation practices like sprinklers and drip irrigation can be employed to ensure the land is not over-irrigated.
  • We need to stick to organic sources to improve soil fertility and productivity. Fertilizers have been a cause of increasing soil salinity and alkalinity. Apart from destroying perfectly good soil, higher alkalanity leaves less usable nutrients for plants, even if the total quantity has increased (for example, not all the nitrogen in the soil can be used by plants). If organic is not possible, regulating the use of fertilizers is a viable option. Instead of mindlessly applying chemicals, farmers can be trained to apply chemicals based on the specific deficiencies present in their soil. Upto 60% fertilizer application can be reduced this way.
  • Increased focus on non-wood products and non-wood substitutes to wood products will reduce pressure on deforestation practices. If wood products cannot be substituted, it is a good idea to only source wood products from certified, sustainably managed forests. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) are some of the most widely recognized sustainable forests certificates.
  • It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do what a billionaire American did; buying patches of forest land and protecting it from people who want to cut it down! However, privatising natural spaces is not a palatable option for many. Nevertheless, it is possible to showcase natural land as important economic goods through Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) systems. When money is at stake, perceptions change. It can create renewed interest in protecting land resources (and it has).
  • Flood control measures. Especially when agricultural land or commercially important land is present along the floodplains, simple flood control measures like levees can prevent erosion and land degradation.
  • Spreading awareness of the dangers of land degradation in urban areas and urban authorities will ensure that mindless city expansion is not undertaken. Often, land degradation in urban fringes is caused because builders view this land as great “future prospects”. Land for such expansion should be carefully evaluated before selection.

These 10 measures can effectively control and prevent land degradation. The United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification and Land Degradation (UNCCD) was established to promote these measures. The Parties of this convention have pledged targets to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) by 2030. With political commitment backing the strong economic incentive to protect our lands, this a good time to be working toward overcoming land degradation.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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