Top 20 Causes of Environmental Degradation | Natural and Anthropogenic

As members of society, the causes of environmental degradation should be of major concern to all humanity. This is because our existence depends on the environment. This article examines critically the issue of environmental degradation, its causes, and its effects.

Since man began to use tools and gradually formed a society, he began to play an important role in the evolution of the natural environment

The environment is a complex system made up of living and non-living materials that interact and interrelate with each other. It makes up our surroundings and affects our ability to live on the earth.

Degradation in a general sense is not used on positive trends. This means that environmental degradation will on a general note, mean a negative occurrence in the environment. It can take place in any sphere of the environment. When environmental degradation occurs on land, it is known as land degradation.

In trying to understand the concept of environmental degradation, this article will give answers to the following questions:

  • What is Environmental Degradation?
  • What are the main effects of environmental degradation?
  • Anthropogenic causes of environmental degradation
  • Natural causes of environmental degradation

What is Environmental Degradation?

Individuals, scientists, and entities have defined environmental degradation in diverse ways. We will consider some of these definitions to understand better the term environmental degradation.

Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment, a process through which the natural environment is compromised, through the depletion of resources such as air, water, and soil;  the destruction of ecosystems reduction of biological diversity, and the general health of the environment.

It is defined as any change or disturbance to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable.

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction defines environmental degradation as “the reduction of the capacity of the environment to meet social and ecological objectives, and needs

Environmental degradation is a negative decline in the state of any component of the environment. It is a gradual process and occurs within a period of a few hours to millions of years.

Degradation of the environment is evident in all parts of the world. It is mild in some areas and worse in others. Changing climates, landslides, molten ice caps, desert encroachment, forest loss, soil erosion, falling levels of groundwater, acid rain, plastics in the oceans, and other polluted water bodies, etc. are all examples of environmental degradation.

The United Nations High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change rates environmental degradation as one of the ten global threats facing the planet.

Environmental degradation is an all-encompassing concept that covers a variety of issues and comes in different forms. These forms include:

  • Depletion of natural resources
  • Pollution
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Desertification
  • Global warming

1. Depletion of Natural Resources

In any geographical location, we find ourselves on earth, we discover we have various types of natural resources around us. This includes the stock resources,

Resource depletion is a form of environmental degradation. Most of our natural resources (such as water, minerals, air, land, and living organisms)  are in a  serious state of degradation.

Air, water, and soil are all resources that are vulnerable to depletion through overuse,  mineral deposits are also prone to depletion. Habitat pressures that force animals into a small area can also contribute to resource depletion as the animals consume a high volume of material in a small area.

For depletion of land resources. the use of fertilizer in crop farming is a major reason for the degradation of soil quality, soil erosion, change in soil salinity, and general loss of arable agricultural land as well as the loss of the production of the quality crop.

For water resources, groundwater aquifers are overexploited in many arid and semi-arid areas, and portable surface water sources for drinking and irrigation are increasingly getting scarce as a result of overuse and pollution. In Nigeria, River Niger which has been the reliable source of Kanji Dam feedstock for electricity generation has witnessed a great level of dryness over the past 15 years.

The depletion of the ozone layer is a good example of the depletion of atmospheric resources.

2. Pollution

Air Pollution

This is another cause and form of environmental degradation. While degradation means the decline in the quantity and quality of natural resources, pollution is the release of harmful substances into the air, water, and soil environment.

Pollution can come from a variety of sources, including vehicle emissions, agricultural runoff, landfills, accidental chemical release from factories, and poorly managed processing/refining of natural resources.

In some cases, pollution may be reversible with costly environmental remediation measures, and in other instances, it may take decades or even centuries for the environment to cope with the pollution. A good example is an oil spill on agricultural lands.

This may take decades for quality clean-up of the affected site. Air pollution refers to the release of harmful contaminants  (chemicals,  toxic gases,  particulates, biological molecules, etc.) into the earth’s atmosphere.

Water pollution is the introduction of pollutants and particulate matter into water bodies such as lakes, rivers, and seas. These contaminants are generally introduced by human activities like improper sewage treatment, industrial effluent discharge, oil spills, etc.

Pollution is a very serious worldwide problem. The growing problem of pollution of the river ecosystem has necessitated the monitoring of water quality.

If the damage to the environment is extensive, it disrupts the natural balance of the environment. The problem could become compounded. Erosion that occurs as a result of bad agricultural practices, for example, can strip the earth of its valuable topsoil, leaving coarse, useless soils behind.

An example of this is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s that occurred in North America, in which drought, poor farming practices, and severe weather led to a widespread stripping of fertile topsoil from farmlands.

3. Biodiversity Loss

Biodiversity loss is the decline in the number of species that were once present in a particular habitat. Biodiversity loss can be a result of natural degradation or human-induced degradation. In different parts of the world, species face different levels and types of threats. But overall patterns show a downward trend in most cases.

4. Desertification

Also known as desert encroachment. It is the gradual formation of a desert in a place that was once no desert. Deforestation is a major cause of desertification.

5. Global Warming

Enhanced global warming is a form of environmental degradation. It is generally attributed to the presence of excess greenhouse gases in the troposphere and the depletion of the ozone layer in the stratosphere.

Global warming is the observed rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s climate system the global surface temperature is likely to rise a further 0.3 to 1.7 °C in the lowest emissions scenario, and 2.6 to 4.8 °C in the highest emissions scenario.

These readings have been recorded by the “national science academies of the major industrialized nations”. Future climate change and impacts will differ from region to region. Expected effects include an increase in global temperatures, rising sea levels, deforestation, imbalanced climatic condition, changing precipitation, and expansion of deserts.

What are the Main Effects of Environmental Degradation?

Environmental degradation is a result of majorly socio-economical, technological, and institutional activities. Its effects are felt by the various components of the environment. These components include the biotic (plants, animals, humans, and microorganisms} and the abiotic {air, water, and land} materials.

The degree of the environmental impact varies with the cause, the habitat,  and the plants and animals that are found in these habitats.

  • Impact on Human Health
  • Loss of Biodiversity
  • Ozone Layer Depletion and Climate Change
  • Economic Impact

1. Impact on Human Health

Humans, although the major perpetrators of environmental degradation are also affected by environmental degradation as they are part of the living components of the environment.

A greater human populace depends directly on activities based on natural resources for their livelihood and the rest relies on these resources directly for food, fuel, industrial output, and recreation.

\Millions of people are known to have died off due to the indirect effects of air pollution. The environmental protection agency (EPA) estimates that industrial workers suffer up to 300,000 pesticide-related acute illnesses and injuries per year,  mostly cholinergic symptoms from anticholinesterases and lung disease from airborne exposure.

Those exposed to polluted water suffer from water-borne diseases such as cholera.

Activities that lead to the loss of arable land affects the nutrition of people living in such area. This Meningitis is a disease that results from enhanced global warming

2. Loss of Biodiversity

Deforestation leading to biodiversity loss

Biodiversity loss is another major consequence of environmental degradation.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes in a video that many species are threatened with extinction. In addition, 1 out of 8 birds, 4 mammals,4 conifers, 3 amphibians, and 6 out of 7 marine turtles are at the risk of going into extinction. Also,

  • 75% of the genetic diversity of crops has been lost
  • 75% of the world’s fisheries are fully or overexploited
  • Up to 70% of the world’s known species risk extinction if the global temperatures rise by more than 3.5°C
  • 1/3rd of reef-building corals around the world are threatened with extinction
  • Over 350 million people suffer from severe water scarcity

When any form of environmental degradation occurs in an area, species that cannot survive die off and some go into extinction. Those that survive either adapt to the environment or migrate to new habitats.

Biodiversity is important for maintaining the balance of the ecosystem in the form of combating pollution,  restoring nutrients, protecting water sources, and stabilizing the climate. Deforestation, global warming, overpopulation, and pollution are a few of the major causes of loss of biodiversity.

3. Ozone Layer Depletion and Climate Change

The constant and prolonged release of certain gases (such as chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons) into the stratosphere causes depletion of the ozone layer.

The ozone layer is responsible for protecting the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. The presence of ozone-depleting gases sends harmful radiation back to the earth. This has resulted in the warming of the troposphere and cooling of the stratosphere.

4. Economic Impact

Activities such as restoration of green cover,  cleaning up of landfills, protection of endangered species, rehabilitation of internally displaced people, reconstruction of damaged buildings and roads, and cleaning up of the large volumes of spills, are geared towards mitigating environmental degradation and remediating already degraded areas is quite expensive.

This can have a big economic impact on the economy of the country(ies) affected.

When natural disasters such as earthquakes, gully erosion, volcanic eruption, mass movement, tsunamis, and hurricanes occur, different forms of damage are incurred. Buildings are destroyed, people lose their homes, some become refugees in other countries, social amenities, individual and government-owned properties are destroyed, and economic activities come to a halt.

These events usually have a toll on the economy, victimized nations usually find it difficult to recover from such an economic mess. Unless they are aided by international organizations, some countries will need to borrow to solve these problems and may never be able to recover from debt.

The economic impact can also be in terms of the loss of the tourism industry. The deterioration of the environment can be a huge setback for a city, state, or country that relies on tourists for their daily livelihood. Environmental damage in the form of loss of green cover, loss of biodiversity, huge landfills, and increased air, and water pollution can be a big turn-off for most tourists.

An area that once was endowed with beautiful forests, and a variety of plant and animal species and attracted tourists from across the globe if not conserved or protected and gradually turns into a spot for hunting activities, indiscriminate tree logging, will lose its natural aesthetic beauty and eventually will have zero attraction to tourists.

Environmental degradation is also a useful aspect,  more new genes have been created, and some species have grown as some have declined. For natural selection, species are constantly regenerating as the environment changes, and human activity is the main driving power. Human is also a product of nature; this shift is to natural replacement.

Top Anthropogenic Causes of Environmental Degradation

The major factor in environmental degradation is humans. This is because the pace and desire for economic development have never ceased. It is economics that has dictated environmental policy. This means that humans satisfy their needs at the expense of the environment. The major human activities that lead to environmental degradation include:

Pollution caused by man
  • Industrialization
  • Unplanned Urbanization
  • Burning of fossil fuels
  • Overpopulation
  • Deforestation
  • Terrestrial Conflicts
  • Landfills
  • Agricultural Activities

1. Industrialization

This is the process of transition of a country’s economy from that of subsistence agriculture, massive importation, total dependence on natural resources, and exportation of raw materials, to mechanization, manufacturing, and construction of industries.

Industrialization emerged in the 18th century as the popularly known Industrial Revolution. Industrial Revolution, is a movement that started in Great Britain and had a global impact. It spread from Great Britain to France and other British settlements Britisco coloniecolocol, helping to make those areas the wealthiest, and shaping what is now known as the Western world.

It later spread to Russia, other Asian countries, Pan-African countries, and the new industrial countries. Industrialization involves the application of recently developed technologies to manufacturing processes.

According to researchers, industries are the primary reason for environmental degradation. This is because they carry out activities that directly damage the environment or indirectly damage it through the release of substances that cause environmental degradation.

Some of these activities and processes are effluent discharge, gas flaring, mining, oil exploration, fossil fuel combustion, and improper disposal of waste such as radioactive waste, minerals, and oil.

Land clearing for agriculture leads to loss of biodiversity and an increase in atmospheric CO2. The use of seismology in exploration affects the lithosphere. Gases emitted from vents, industrial plants, fly ash, etc cause air pollution. These are the few among other numerous industrial activities that cause environmental degradation.

2. Unplanned Urbanization

According to The Department of Economic and Social Affairs, half of the global population already lives in cities, and by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s people are expected to live in urban areas.

Therefore, as populations move to more developed areas (towns and cities) the immediate outcome is urbanization. Urban people change their environment through their consumption of food, energy, water, and land.

As cities grow in number, spatial extent, and density, their environmental and ecological footprints increase. Urban expansion that takes place in forests, wetlands, and agricultural systems leads to habitat clearing; degradation, and fragmentation of the landscapes.

Urban lifestyles, which tend to be consumptive, requiring great natural resources and generating increasing amounts of waste also lead to increased levels of air, water, and soil pollution

A paper published in the PNAS states that unsustainable urbanization will have disastrous effects on global ecosystems. The areas of Asia, Africa, and South America that are rapidly growing will overlap with biodiversity hotspots. The aftermath? The urban expansion will lead to the demise of 139 amphibian species, 41 mammalian species, and 25 bird species. All of these are endangered or critically endangered

Other cities—primarily in the industrialized regions of the United States and Europe—also suffered from notoriously bad air quality.

Urbanization has led to reduced physical activity and unhealthy nutrition. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, non-communicable diseases such as heart disease will account for 69 percent of all deaths in developing countries.

Another urbanization-related threat is infectious diseases. Air travel carries bacteria and viruses from one country to the next. In addition, people relocating from rural areas are not immune to the same diseases as long-time city residents, which puts them at a greater risk of contracting a disease

3. Burning of Fossil Fuels

The conversion of Earth’s land surface to urban uses is one of the most irreversible human impacts on the global biosphere. It hastens the loss of highly productive farmland, affects energy demand, alters the climate, modifies hydrologic and biogeochemical cycles, fragments habitats, and reduces biodiversity.

pressure on land resources, urban areas change precipitation patterns at scales of hundreds of square kilometers, Urban expansion will affect the global climate as well. Direct loss in vegetation biomass from areas with a high probability of urban expansion is predicted to contribute about 5% of total emissions from tropical deforestation and land-use change.

4. Overpopulation

More people means an increased demand for food, water, housing, energy, healthcare, transportation, and more. And all that consumption contributes to ecological degradation, increased conflicts, and a higher risk of large-scale disasters like pandemics.

An increase in population will inevitably create pressures leading to more deforestation, decreased biodiversity, and spikes in pollution and emissions, which will exacerbate climate change with a population approaching 8 billion.

According to estimates in a study by Wynes and Nicholas (2017), reducing childbirth could reduce emissions by 58.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year in developed countries.

Many of the recent novel pathogens that have devastated humans around the world, including COVID-19, Zika virus, Ebola, and West Nile virus, originated in animals or insects before passing to humans. is because humans are destroying wildlife habitats and coming into contact with wild animals on a more regular basis.

5. Deforestation

Millions of tons of greenhouse gases that are typically trapped in wood as carbon might be released into the atmosphere as a result of excessive forest cutting or thinning, which can disrupt the global climate. This could harm the atmosphere, causing global warming, and ultimately result in climate change.

15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to deforestation and forest degradation. These greenhouse gas emissions are a factor in global warming, altered weather and water patterns, and a rise in the frequency of extreme weather occurrences.

6. Territorial Conflicts

Conflict usually causes harm to the environment. Too frequently, warfare directly harms or destroys the ecosystem. Attacks may result in the contamination of the air, soil, and water, as well as the release of pollutants. Explosive war waste can harm wildlife as well as contaminate land and water systems.

Wars and other armed conflicts have an impact on the land both directly via physical devastation and indirectly through changes in daily life and resource use. Communities are more susceptible to future land degradation as well as to socioeconomic and political forces due to the long-lasting effects of land degradation, such as soil erosion and contamination.

7. Landfills

The amount of waste produced is influenced by economic activity, consumption, and population growth. Developed societies, such as the United States, generally produce large amounts of municipal solid waste (e.g., food wastes, packaged goods, disposable goods, used electronics) and commercial and industrial wastes (e.g., demolition debris, incineration residues, refinery sludges).

Most municipal solid wastes and hazardous wastes are managed in land disposal units. For hazardous wastes, land disposal includes landfills, surface impoundments, land treatment, land farming, and underground injection.

8. Agricultural Activities

In many nations, agriculture is the main cause of pollution. Pesticides, fertilizers, and other harmful agricultural chemicals have the potential to contaminate fresh water, marine habitats, air, and soil. They may also linger in the environment for many years.

Climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, dead zones, genetic engineering, irrigation concerns, pollution, soil degradation, and waste are only a few of the broader environmental problems agriculture contributes to.

Top Natural Causes of Environmental Degradation

One would ask ‘Does nature damage itself?’ the answer to this question is ”Yes. With or without the effect of human activities, a few biological systems degrade to the point where they can’t help the life that is supposed to live there. Natural causes of environmental degradation include:

  • Earthquakes
  • Fires
  • Tsunami
  • Tornadoes
  • Avalanche
  • Hurricane
  • Typhoons
  • Landslides
  • Volcanic Eruption
  • Flood
  • Drought
  • Rising temperature

1. Earthquakes

An earthquake is the shaking caused by the rupture (breaking) and subsequent displacement of rocks (one body of rock moving to another) beneath the Earth’s surface.

An earthquake is the sudden vibration of the earth. It is known as a quake, tremblor, or tremor. This happens as a result of seismic waves passing through the earth.

When seismic waves pass through the ground, it causes the ground to shake. This ground-shaking causes materials on the surface of the earth to shake. This ground shaking can be mild or vigorous.

Ground rupture occurs when the earthquake moves along a fault and causes the earth’s surface to break up. Earthquakes cause landslides, earth liquefaction, and subsidence, flooding, the spill of hazardous chemicals, injury, and death.

The  Las Colinas debris flow at Santa Tecla (a suburb of the capital San Salvador) was triggered by the January 2001 El Salvador earthquake. This is just one of many hundreds of slope failures that resulted from that earthquake

2. Fires

Natural fires can occur as wildfires, bushfires, wildland fires, or rural fires. forest fire, brush fire, desert fire, grass fire, hill fire, peat fire, prairie fire, vegetation fire, or veld fire. Natural fire is a fire that occurs in an area that has combustible vegetation. They are usually uncontrolled, and unwanted a.

Most fires are caused by humans. But in places like Spain, California, Canada, and the Russian Federation, a fire occurs as a result of lightning. Fire damages vegetation results in floristic impoverishment destroy soil structure, chars life components of an environment, increases the risk of erosion in a place, and damages lives and properties.

3. Tsunami

A tsunami is a series of waves in a water body caused by the displacement of a large volume of water, generally in an ocean or a large lake. Tsunamis are catastrophic ocean waves, usually caused by a submarine earthquake, an underwater or coastal landslide, or a volcanic eruption

Tsunamis lead to submerging of properties and land surfaces, contamination of the water environment, gas leaks and fire incidents, human fatalities, and loss of aquatic life.

4. Tornadoes

A tornado is one of nature’s most violent storms. It is a violent revolving column of air coming from a thunderstorm to the earth. This disaster originated from strong thunderstorms and emerges as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud with winds of about 300 mph. This is about five times as fast as a vehicle driving on a highway!

The uprooting of trees, the great amount of dust that they bring in from dry areas, pipeline rupture and subsequent spills, the spread of hazardous waste, and the destruction of lives and properties are all forms of environmental degradation resulting from tornadoes.

5. Avalanche

Avalanches are masses of snow, ice, and rocks that fall rapidly down a mountainside. They can be deadly. An avalanche is a natural disaster that occurs when snow rapidly flows down a mountain.

6. Hurricane

Strong winds from hurricanes can entirely defoliate forest canopies and affect the structure of woody habitats. Hurricanes can directly kill animals or have an impact on them indirectly by altering habitat and food availability due to strong winds, storm surges, and heavy rain.

7. Typhoons

Typhoons are similar to hurricanes. The only difference between them is that hurricanes occur in the North Atlantic, central North Pacific, and eastern North Pacific.  The term typhoon is used  in the Northwest Pacific

8. Landslides

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Landslides occur when large amounts of earth, rock, sand, or mudflow swiftly downhill and on mountain slopes. Landslides are usually triggered by natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, heavy rain storms, or cyclones. Human activities however increase their frequency.

Landslides are very important causes of environmental degradation. Landslide debris clogs rivers and destroys aquatic organisms thus, damaging the quality of these water bodies. The debris also increases the risk of flood.

Landslides also destroy a large expanse of land, including all living and non-living resources present on such lands. They strip forests of their vegetative cover and the habitats of natural wildlife leading to biodiversity loss.

After Tropical Storm Stan in 2005, landslides caused the watersheds in Guatemala to collapse.

9. Volcanic Eruption

Volcanoes spew hot, dangerous gases (Carbon IV oxide, water vapor, and Sulphur dioxide), ash, lava, and rock that are powerfully destructive. This causes air pollution, drinking water contamination, and wildfires. It also affects the health of exposed persons and the infrastructure of communities.

10. Flood

Floodwaters have the power to devastate wildlife habitats. Rivers and habitats can become polluted by toxic floodwater. On farms, silt and sediment can ruin crops. As rivers fill to their bank-full capacity, natural levées and river banks may be removed.

Floodwaters’ detrimental effects on coastal marine environments are mostly caused by the addition of too much silt, too many nutrients, and contaminants such as chemicals, heavy metals, and trash. These have the potential to harm coastal food supplies, limit coastal production, and deteriorate aquatic habitats.

11. Drought

Reduced streamflow in rivers and lower water levels in reservoirs, lakes, and ponds are caused by drought. This reduction in the water supply may also result in the loss of some wetlands, the depletion of groundwater, and even effects on water quality (e.g. salt concentration can increase).

12. Rising temperature

In addition to the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, thermal expansion is raising sea levels, increasing the risk of erosion and storm surges in coastal communities. Numerous changes in ecosystems are being brought on by the combined effects of climate change.

The temperature is 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps the difference between wearing a sweater on a chilly spring day and not wearing one may not seem like much.

But if global emissions continue on their current course, the world in which we live—which climate experts project will be at least 5.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by 2100, relative to pre-industrial levels (1850–1900). If this should continue, there would be a high negative impact on a small temperature increase.

These effects, which affect all ecosystems and living things, including us, are now becoming clear.


Having understood the concept of environmental damage, its causes, and its effects, it is clear that good environmental management is essential for good health, biodiversity conservation, economic growth, and development. It is not just a luxury for wealthy countries concerned with aesthetics.  Human activities should therefore go alongside environmental protection.


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