Desertification setting in across a quarter of India

Another 30% of the county’s land is undergoing degradation. What does this mean for the country where more than 60% peopel depends on agriculture?

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 29 August 2019
Repeated overgrazing has significantly contributed to degradation of land in Gujarat. Photo: Adithyan PC __

Every year during the monsoon, Hemant Waman Chowre faces a peculiar situation. On the one hand, he hopes for good rainfall to water his crops but on the other, he is scared, for even a mild shower can destroy his saplings.

Chowre is a 35-year-old farmer in Daregaon, a village in Sakri block of Maharashtra’s Dhule district. His 1.5-hectare (ha) farm sits on a gentle slope at the tail of the Sahyadri mountain range, or the Western Ghats, that marks the western periphery of the district. The topography is marked by barren lands, scarce trees and shallow soil.

“The soil is just 15 cm deep,” Chowre said. The annual average rainfall in Dhule is 674 millimetre (mm) — a little more than what Rajasthan receives — and when it rains, the water rolls down the hill, washing away the topsoil along with saplings.

“I had to plant saplings twice in 2018,” said Chowre. “When my soya bean got washed away, I planted bajra (pearl millet).”

In neighbouring Vardharne village, Vilas Rajaram Gowli points to a hole, resembling a fox’s burrow, in his field. On July 22, when Down To Earth (DTE) visited Dhule, the region had received just over 100 mm of rain. “We have had only 10 per cent of the rainfall this season and you can see holes everywhere. By the end of the season, the entire topsoil will be gone,” he said.

These are clear signs of desertification which, as per the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), is degrading 12 million ha of productive land across the world every year. This is over 80 times the size of Delhi and is enough to grow 20 million tonnes of grain.

UNCCD, a legally binding international agreement that links environment and development to sustainable land management, defines this phenomenon as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities”.

Drylands affected by desertification not only lose their ability to support plant life, but also their ability to offer ecosystem services, such as management of water systems and storage of carbon use in global warming.

Desertification has occurred throughout history. But what’s alarming is that its pace has accelerated 30 to 35 times the historical rate in the recent decades. With changing climate, prolonged droughts and increasing incidences of floods, landslides and frost heaving are in any case reducing the amount of productive land.

At the same time, growing demand for food, fodder, fuel and raw materials is increasing the pressure on land and the competition for natural resources. Factors like deforestation, wetland drainage, overgrazing, unsustainable land use practices and the expansion of agricultural, industrial and urban areas are the other significant causes of land degradation, said the UN body.

For instance, the World Atlas of Desertification, 1997, shows overgrazing is responsible for 90 per cent of dryland degradation in Australia and 60 per cent in Africa. Deforestation has caused 40 per cent dryland degradation in South America and Europe and 30 per cent in Asia.

At least one-quarter of the global land has degraded in the last two decades. Some 1,500 million people depend on this degrading land for their livelihood.

A major discussion on ways to reverse land degradation and its outcomes is being held at the 14th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP14) to UNCCD in Greater Noida, New Delhi, from September 2 to 13.

The choice of India to host COP14 is significant, for the country houses 18 per cent of the world population and 15 per cent of livestock on just 2.4 per cent of land. With 195 million undernourished people, India already has a quarter of the global hunger burden.

According to Desertification and Land Degradation of Selected Districts of India, an atlas published by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Space Application Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad in 2018, some 96.40 million ha, or about 30 per cent of the country’s total area, is undergoing degradation.

SAC mapped India’s 76 drought-prone districts and two sub-basins in Ladakh to prepare the atlas and found that in drylands, which span 228.3 million ha, or 70 per cent of the country’s total land, 82.64 million ha is under desertification.

This means almost a quarter of India is under desertification. Worse, the extent of desertification and land degradation has increased by some 1.16 million ha and 1.87 million ha respectively in just eight years, between 2003-05 and 2011-13 when SAC conducted the surveys.

The extent is more than 2 per cent in nine of the mapped districts. By comparison, data with the World Atlas of Desertification, Third Edition, prepared by Office of the European Union, shows drylands have increased by 0.35 per cent since the 1950s worldwide. In 21 of the 76 districts surveyed by SAC, more than 50 per cent of the area is under degradation.

Recently, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change asked The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a New Delhi-based non-profit, to assess the cost of land degradation in India. TERI’s conservative estimate shows land degradation costs $48.8 billion to the country’s exchequer annually.

This is almost 2.08 per cent of India’s GDP in 2014-15 and over 13 per cent of gross value added from agriculture and forestry that year. The economic cost of forest degradation accounts for 55 per cent of the total loss. There has been a consistent increase in the area under water erosion, said the report.

The findings are startling for a few reasons. Since in 1980s, India has spent a massive Rs 10,000 crore a year on watershed programmes. Over Rs 3,874 crore has been released for plantation programmes in the past two decades alone.

DTE reporters visited eight districts (in separate states) where 50 per cent of the area is under desertification. They found a vicious cycle of land degradation, governance failure and absence of knowledge fuelling environmental chaos.

In Maharashtra, the timber mafia was eating into already thin forests, leading to soil erosion. More than a million trees were felled between 2005 and 2014, using permits issued by the state's forest department every year. Another 0.26 million were cut illegally.

Excessive mining in Jharkhand has triggered soil erosion and aggravated water scarcity in the state. All the wells and tube wells in Barkitand village of Giridih district have dried up in just 10 years. Data with the Central Ground Water Board shows that water table in the entire block has lowered from 8 m below the ground level in 2013 to about 10 m in 2017.

Rampant mining and expanding urbanisation has taken a toll on Goa. Lack of planning could, further, degrade land in the state.

In Nagaland, shifting cultivation (where people slash trees and burn them to prepare the land for farming), deforestation and rising population are to blame for desertification. The rapidly vanishing vegetation cover has intensified soil erosion in the state.

In Andhra Pradesh, low rainfall and increased dependence on borewells have led to soil aridity, while less snow and more rainfall has deepened the desertification crisis in Himachal Pradesh.

Overgrazing and encroachment of grassland for agricultural activities have affected Gujarat.

On the other hand, in Rajasthan, canals, tubewell irrigation and shelterbelts have led to an increase in the green cover.

Coming up soon: The detailed reportage. Watch this space.

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