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Desertification in Africa

Desertification is a serious problem across significant areas of the African continent. Large areas have already experienced desertification, with widespread land degradation and soil erosion. There are two main drivers behind it: climate variations and human activities. Large parts of Africa experience a rather hot and dry climate, one which is becoming even more extreme and unpredictable due to climate change. Ever-growing populations are also increasing the demand for overgrazing, agriculture and deforestation, which degrade the land even further.

Desertification in Africa is already rather serious, but is a problem that will keep on growing into the future. There is a notable geographic pattern of desertification in Africa, covering many areas of mostly savannah land that already border existing deserts. The Sahel region – a semi-arid area that spans much of western Africa, and is stretched out along the southern side of the Sahara Desert, is one of these areas. However, parts of eastern Africa, including Kenya, are also under threat from becoming a desert, as are the areas surrounding the Kalahari and Namibian Deserts. Away from the humid rainforests that span much of the Equator, Africa is a rather dry continent – 65% of its land area is classed as being at least semi-arid. Apart from the deserts of Africa, the savannah areas also form a vast network of dryland environments, which are becoming increasingly susceptible due to climate change.

The large savannah areas experience a long dry season that is interspersed by a two- or three-month wet season. Changes in rainfall patterns, which are becoming increasingly common due to climate change, mean that wet seasons are shorter and produce less rain across many desert-bordering savannah drylands. This means that desert-bordering areas lose their vegetation, with grasslands and shrublands receding, resulting in fertile soil being blown away and the landscape becoming barren. Furthermore, climate change has been linked to increasing the intensity of rainfall during torrential downpours – however, the land is often too dry to absorb rainfall runoff, further degrading the land through soil erosion.

Human activities accelerate the issue of desertification in Africa even further. Overgrazing, negative agricultural practices and deforestation are three large contributors, all of which are encouraged by a growing population, much of which lives in extreme poverty and relies directly upon the land in order to survive. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that 58% of African desertification is due to cattle grazing, which removes large amounts of soil-binding grass (and other vegetation) from the ground. Agricultural activities, in particular planting and growing crops, contributes towards around one-fifth of desertification in Africa – growing crops and tilling the soil means that that topsoil is easily eroded by both the wind and the rain.

Deforestation also has a negative impact and severe consequences for desertification – some savannah areas are occupied by pockets of woodland such as Acacia thickets. These are often cleared for firewood and this deforestation leads to desertification. Planting trees is an important part of the solution to prevent further desertification in Africa, alongside the implementation of more environmentally-friendly agricultural methods.

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