A Resource of the Environmental Monitoring Group, Cape Town, South Africa 
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Desertification and Land Degradation in South Africa

What is ‘desertification’ ?

‘Deserfication’ is another word for degradation of the land in dry areas of the world, primarily caused by human activities. Desertification is not the spread of existing deserts: it is the destruction of productive land in dry areas mainly because of misuse or overuse.

Desertification is happening all over the world. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it affects 900 million people in 99 countries, by destroying the soil’s capacity to support livestock or grow crops – 24 million tonnes of topsoil are lost to desertification around the world every single year. Half of all the land is already degraded, and the United Nations (UN) has estimated that this soil destruction costs Africa about US$9 billion every year.

What is causing this problem ?

Many things contribute to the destruction of the land by desertification, but overall the problem is caused by people putting too much pressure on delicate soils and ecosystems in ‘dryland’ areas. Land degradation of this sort happens in areas of the world which are already dry and where there is often little rain, so the soil is already fragile. The UN calls these areas ‘arid, semi-arid or sub-arid’- in other words, hot and dry. 43 % of Africa falls into one of these categories.

Where the soil is already dry, overuse by man easily destroy it. In Africa, one of the main causes of land degradation is overgrazing – too many livestock, such as goats or cows, on the land, which strip the soil of its vegetation and expose it to erosion by wind and water. Another cause is deforestation. Trees hold the soil together and help water the land by channeling rainwater into the soil. When they are chopped down, the soil is again eroded by the elements, and is unable to hold water. Other causes include intensive arable farming, which eventually drains the soil of its nutrients, leaving it unable to produce crops, and poor irrigation practices, which can lead to the waterlogging and salinization of the soil.

What about South Africa ?

A recent national survey suggests that land in nearly 25 % of the magisterial districts of South Africa is already badly degraded.

Land degradation is a huge problem in South Africa. The UN Environment Programme classifies more than 90 % of the country as arid, semi-arid or sub-humid. South Africa’s National Botanical Institute is currently drawing up a report for the government to give some indication of the extent of land degradation across the country; this report suggests that land in 25 % of magisterial districts in South Africa is already severely degraded.

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Many of the land problems that South Africa suffers from today are a legacy of apartheid – and desertification is no exception. Desertification is exacerbated by inequitable land ownership. It should be no surprise that the former homeland areas are amongst the most severely degraded in the country. As a result of the unjust distribution of land, agricultural land in the former homelands has been overgrazed and over-cropped for decades, and in many cases is now degraded almost beyond repair. In addition, land tenure laws and practices in the former homelands and townships did not encourage people to conserve land they did not have a stake in.

Land degradation is more than just an environmental problem in rural areas – it is also one of the causes of migration to the cities, resulting in overcrowding and unemployment. It is therefore a social problem which affects us all, and must be tackled before many people’s aspirations of a better life can be met.

Addressing the problem
What is being done about the problem ?

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