Amidst a global pandemic, it is critical to think about some of the reasons diseases and infections spread so rapidly in our world. One reason, as noted by scientists, is land mismanagement, and its subsequent effects on food and water supplies. A healthy land leads to healthy people, and despite our overwhelming knowledge and access to scientific work, decisive action to preserve and restore our environment is not being taken.

A woman stands in the grazing fields near her village in rural Karnataka.

Let’s walk through the behind-the-scenes story of land degradation.

See, when land is managed properly (i.e. crops are rotated, adequate irrigation adhering to the needs of the local soil and vegetation, recharging of ground and surface water, periods of rest for agricultural land, maintenance of soil health by avoiding over-working the soil), the soil remains fertile and provides resources that humans and wildlife depend upon such as crops, groundwater supply, and vegetation to continue natural chemical cycles. Exploitation of land, especially grasslands, which are overused for grazing and converted into cropland, takes a toll upon the health of these vital ecosystems, leading to degradation. Deforestation is another practice that hurts land productivity. Tree roots hold together soil particles, promote microbial activity and nutrient transport through the soil, and input organic matter that helps generate nutrients and acts as fertilizer. Tree cover also prevents erosion of topsoil. Overgrazing is another human-origin cause of land degradation. Livestock hooves trample the soil, rendering it unproductive, and often vacuum up grasses and other vegetation, loosening the soil. While livelihoods must be preserved, better management of grazing and pasture lands is imperative if we are to maintain these productive ecosystems.

Image by Chetan Misher

Land degradation can also be caused by a changing climate. In India, land productivity is often governed by water, namely the monsoon. With a changing climate, the monsoon has become more erratic and unpredictable, creating waves of flooding and drought in alternating seasons in certain vulnerable regions. India’s agricultural belt and drier ecosystems in the western states of the country are most vulnerable to a shifting monsoon and its effects. With varying rainfall patterns come varying cropping and vegetation growth patterns, causing disarray and often resulting in overworked, poorly-managed soil. An unfortunate byproduct of this in arid and semi-arid regions of India is land health crisis.

This land health crisis is colloquially termed “desertification.”

A chinkara (Indian gazelle) takes off as our jeep approaches (Image by Man Singh)

It is important to realise that desertification is not the expansion of deserts into neighbouring “productive” regions; indeed, desert ecosystems are highly productive and very different from wastelands. Contrary to popular belief, deserts hold many life forms, from the Indian gazelle and blackbuck, to the desert fox, desert cat, and caracal, to over 13 species of snakes and countless other reptiles. Small mammals also thrive in these harsh ecosystems, and adaptations include small body size and larger ears to radiate heat. Many desert animals are also active during the early morning and late evening hours to minimize heat exposure. Desert plants also have specialized photosynthesis patterns to minimize water loss to the daytime heat.

Desertification is a term coined by the United Nations to explain large-scale land degradation. More than 2 billion hectares of previously-productive land has been degraded, according to the recent meeting of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Food production by 2030 is estimated to require another 300 million hectares of arable land; where will this land come from in this age of growing human populations and shrinking space?

It is critical that we as a species learn to maximize our natural resources without overexploiting them and depriving future generations and other species their right to survive and meet their basic needs. Today, June 17th, is the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. While we cannot control the natural aspects of these processes, we can certainly restrain our management of these lands and reduce our human footprint on already-damaged soil.

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