13 Human Causes of Desertification

Generally speaking, land deterioration has evolved to the point of desertification. Desertification is described by the UN as a “diminution or destruction of the biological potential of the land, which can ultimately lead to desert-like conditions.”

Long-term droughts in arid, semi-arid, or dry sub-humid regions, sometimes known as drylands, can cause desertification by depleting the soil’s productivity to the point where it is “dead” soil. Additionally, the process is frequently influenced by human activity.

While fragile drylands have been effectively maintained for millennia in many regions of the world, pressure on the land today is much greater due to the approximately 2 billion people who live in drylands worldwide.

The development and extensive use of agricultural lands, inadequate irrigation techniques, deforestation, and overgrazing are only a few examples of human causes of desertification. By changing the soil’s chemistry and hydrology, these unsustainable land uses put a tremendous amount of strain on the environment.

Overused drylands eventually experience erosion, soil salinization, productivity loss, and poor climate resilience. In heavily populated areas of less developed nations, where population development is increasing pressure on marginal lands, land management is especially important.

Future global warming caused by the accumulating levels of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere brought on by the burning of fossil fuels poses a threat to aggravate this situation. As evaporation rates grow, a rise in global temperatures is predicted to hasten the process of desertification.

Despite the identification of these numerous contributing elements, little is known about how the desertification process works. For example, it is challenging to predict when drought, which is caused by transient changes in atmospheric circulation patterns, may develop into a long-lasting, ongoing issue.

To assess whether a drought is an example of desertification, some meteorologists and soil scientists measure the effects and duration of the drought. Droughts might last for months or years, but they eventually end; regions that are turning into deserts never regain their previous production.

For instance, a drought in the 1930s in the United States devastated 65% of the nation, but the Great Basin eventually recovered, and droughts today typically only affect 10% of the country’s area.

Land degradation itself can contribute to further disruption of societal and political stability when social and political dynamics increase pressures on the land that cause desertification.

Many people in dryland areas are left without the means to provide for themselves and their children as a result of the loss of fertile soil, water, and other resources, both for subsistence and commercial use.

These refugees frequently move to cities or other nations, adding to population pressures and perhaps raising the possibility of social and political unrest.

The Natural Heritage Institute claims that many of the yearly influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico into the United States are escaping the highly deteriorated lands of that nation, which comprise 60% of the country’s landmass.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 25 million refugees worldwide, or 58% of all refugees, are escaping degraded areas.

Human Causes of Desertification

There are several reasons why areas get desertified, but a large portion of the desertification that is happening in the globe now is due to human activities on grounds that are especially susceptible to overexploitation and poor agricultural practices.

The following are some of the factors that humans have in our world’s desertification

  • Overgrazing
  • Deforestation
  • Agriculture Methods
  • Excessive Use of Fertilizers and Pesticides
  • Groundwater Overdrafting
  • Overpopulation and Overexploitation of Natural Resources
  • Urbanization and Other Types of Land Development
  • Climate Change
  • Depletion of Land Resources
  • Soil Contamination
  • Mining
  • Urbanization and Development of Tourism
  • Hunger, Poverty, and Political Unrest

1. Overgrazing

Desertification and overgrazing have always been closely related. In dry areas, grass and other tiny plants help hold the soil in place, preventing erosion and further soil degradation.

However, it is a paradox of life that, particularly in these vulnerable areas, animal herding is frequently the only source of income available to people, and there are no regulations in place to limit the maximum number of animals that can be kept in a given area.

The roots of grasses are frequently harmed by animals repeatedly trampling on them and pulling out newly regrowing sections before plants have time to become strong enough and to spread. This happens when people assemble and keep too many animals in one place.

After a while, there is no longer any vegetation to shield the soil from wind or water erosion. To continue the procedure, they move the livestock to another plot of land. Long-term occurrence of this results in significant desertification.

2. Deforestation

In order to use the land for something other than being a forested region, a forest or trees must be intentionally cleared. As a result, the bare earth gets considerably hotter and drier since vegetation is required for processes like evapotranspiration.

Because trees lose their roots when they are chopped down, the soil is more prone to be washed or blown away by rain and wind.

3. Agriculture Methods

Overcultivation (farming the same patch of land too frequently) and monocropping (growing the same crop year after year) can be bad for the soil’s health since they don’t give it enough time to replenish its nutrients.

The quality of the land can also be impacted by excessive soil tilling, which causes the soil to be disturbed too frequently or deeply, leading the ground to dry out too soon. After a few years of recurrent tillage, the soil starts to lose organic matter and nutrients, and topsoil loss starts to overwhelm replacement soil.

Some farmers are unable to utilize the land to its full potential. Before going on to another piece of land, they might essentially strip the first one of everything it contains. Desertification in the region utilized for farming is made more likely by depleting the soil of its nutrients.

4. Excessive Use of Fertilizers and Pesticides

Utilizing excessive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers to increase crop yields in the short term frequently results in serious damage to the environment.

This area may eventually go from arable to arid, and after a few years of intensive cultivation, the soil will have suffered too much damage. As a result, it will no longer be viable for farming.

5. Groundwater Overdrafting

One of the main sources of freshwater is groundwater, which is underground water. Overdrafting is the process of drawing too much groundwater up from subterranean aquifers or extracting more groundwater than the equilibrium yield of the aquifer that is pumping. Desertification results from its depletion.

Large volumes of groundwater are extracted from natural aquifers in rural and urban regions, including well-known tourist attractions, impeding their natural replenishment and eventually resulting in water scarcity.

6. Overpopulation and Overexploitation of Natural Resources

Ecosystems on our planet can only support life in a balanced state. Beyond a certain tipping point, they crumble. They can adjust and deal with small obstacles. Unfortunately, desertification is evidence that we may have already passed this critical point in some areas.

The capacity of dryland ecosystems to recover has been exceeded by rapid growth in the human population, particularly in sensitive regions of Africa and Asia. As “harsh” as that may sound, the explanation is quite straightforward.

The need for natural resources (particularly water) and space to cultivate crops and establish towns will increase as the population grows. However, attempting to feed more people quickly leads to the overuse of the existing resources, even when this is unintentional. Just take a look at the samples from earlier; they all support this assertion.

Overexploitation is frequently followed by desertification, which only leaves arid land and misery for those who have stayed.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one area of the world that has seen many of these adverse consequences at once. The area is currently experiencing severe desertification brought on by a variety of reasons.

The extension of agriculture into unsuitable places as a result of very high birth rates, unrestricted tree cutting for fuel, all linked to the effects of climate change, and poor government policies are only a few of these contributing factors. 

7. Urbanization and Other Types of Land Development

As was already said, development can lead to people walking through and destroying plant life. Due to chemicals and other factors that could harm the ground, it might also result in problems with the soil. Desertification is the result of fewer places for plants to grow as areas become increasingly populated.

8. Climate Change

A significant contributor to desertification is climate change. Desertification is a growing concern as the climate warms and droughts occur more frequently.

Huge swathes of land will turn into deserts if climate change is not slowed down; some of those regions may eventually become uninhabitable. Although there are natural causes that can contribute to climate change, human activity is the main factor influencing it.

9. Depletion of Land Resources

People will come and mine or remove natural resources from a piece of land if it has minerals, natural gas, or oil. This typically depletes the soil of nutrients, which destroys plant life and finally triggers the transition to a desert environment.

10. Soil Contamination

Desertification is largely caused by soil contamination. The majority of plants are quite sensitive to their surroundings in the wild. Long-term desertification may occur in a particular area of land when the soil gets contaminated as a result of numerous human activities. Over time, the soil will deteriorate more quickly the more pollution there is.

11. Mining

Another significant contributor to desertification is mining. To meet our demand for material products, industries must take substantial amounts of resources. Large tracts of land must be exploited for mining, which deforests the area and pollutes the surroundings.

By the time the majority of the natural resources have been depleted and mining operations are no longer economical, the soil has already suffered severe harm, the area has become parched, and desertification has set in.

12. Urbanization and Development of Tourism

Few individuals are aware that while strolling through their city or a wonderful tourist destination, native ecosystems have to be irrevocably destroyed in order to develop these monuments. Even once-available natural resources perish along with ecosystems.

This implies that natural resources must be removed from the environment around a densely populated place in order for it to function properly.

But as the tendency toward urbanization continues, so does the demand for resources, which draws more and more of them and leaves behind damaged terrain that is easily subject to desertification.

13. Hunger, Poverty, and Political Unrest

These issues can both contribute to and be the cause of desertification. This is due to the fact that people facing impending famine, extreme poverty, or political instability do not consider sustainable agricultural methods since they are focused on immediately resolving the issue.

Unfortunately, poor land use practices, like grazing animals on rapidly eroding land, illegal logging, and unsustainable crop cultivation, are frequent results of their compromised livelihoods. These practices only serve to further degrade the soil and endanger human life.


Many drylands are rapidly degrading as a result of climate change and human activity. It is now clearly seen in many nations. This necessitates taking further steps to stop desertification from becoming a worldwide catastrophe.


A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.

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