World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought: Rising desertification across India

Frequent heatwaves & droughts to accelerate desertification


June 17, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought: Rising desertification across India

29.7 pc of India's land has become degraded, says report by ISRO (Photo: Padma Stanzin)

Though India has been home to several deserts, notably the Thar, for millions of years, climate change has led to an increase in desertification across the country. Frequent and increasingly severe heatwaves, irregular rainfall and reckless use of water resources are the main factors for India to ponder over as it marks the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

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According to a report by the Indian Space Research Organisation and Desertification and Land Degradation, 97,850,000 hectares of India’s total geographical area of 328,720,000 hectares underwent land degradation during 2018-19. Report says, 29.7 pc of the country’s land become degraded, besides land degradation, desertification had also increased as 83,690,000 hectares of land underwent desertification in the same period.

Worryingly, the desertification was not limited to the states with deserts like Rajasthan, Gujarat or even the cold desert in Ladakh, in fact, India experienced an increase in the level of desertification in 28 out of 31 states and Union Territories between 2011-13 and 2018-2019. Of these, the key states where desertification was widespread were Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Ladakh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, which accounted for 24 pc of the area undergoing desertification with respect to total area of the country. However, land degradation and desertification was declining in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana in 2018-19, according to a survey by ISRO and Atlas.

A study by IIT Delhi earlier this year that developed a pan-India assessment of rainfall erosivity, using gridded precipitation datasets said that parts of Assam and Meghalaya are among zones in India that are prone to the greatest rainfall-driven soil erosion. Soil of mostly loamy, silt loamy, sand clay loamy, and clay loamy texture classes are present in Assam and Meghalaya regions which do not show ample resistance to soil erosion due to water.

About 68 pc of total eroded soil in India is affected by water-driven erosion, and rainfall erosivity is a major contributor to that erosion and land degradation, says the study by IIT Delhi, while a study by IIT Roorkee found that 85 pc of land in Northeast India and Western Ghats of India affected by water-driven erosion. Agricultural land in Assam and Meghalaya also extensively suffered from water logging, the second factor behind the increasing desertification rates.

ISRO and Atlas said that 11 pc of desertification in India was caused by rainfall and 9 pc caused by vegetation degradation. Wind erosion causes 5 pc of desertification in India, says the study and 25 pc of India’s land is affected by desertification and 30 pc is degraded.

Severe implications of desertification

The increase in desertification comes with severe implications not just for the environment, but also the health and livelihood of the people impacted by the process of desertification. For instance, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) conducted a study on land degradation which revealed that the productivity of land is declining fast in Jharkhand. A study undertaken by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences, in association with research organisations of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha, published in 2006, found that in a severe drought year, farmers in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha incurred losses of almost USD 400 million and that almost 13 million people in the three states who lived just above the poverty line, fell below it due to drought-induced income loss.

A report, Drought in Numbers, 2022 released on May 11, 2022, at the ongoing 15th Conference of Parties (CoP15) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) pointed out that the effect of severe droughts was estimated to have reduced India’s gross domestic product by as much as 5 pc over the 20 years from 1998 to 2017.

India is not only home to hot deserts, but it also has cold deserts in the Himalayan region. About 80 pc of the cold desert region in India is in the union territory of Ladakh, while the rest is in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. At a panel discussion on cold desertification at the another CoP of UNCCD, held in New Delhi on September 5, 2019, AL Ramanathan, glaciologist from the Jawaharlal Nehru University said there was clear evidence, direct and indirect, of desertification increasing in the trans-Himalayan regions in the form of shifting tree lines, migrating dunes and changes in soil moisture levels. ‘‘Degradation of land, which leads to the process of desertification, is not limited to arid and semi-arid areas but is also visible in high altitude regions that get very little rainfall and are known as cold deserts. In cold desert regions in India, the expanse of deserts appears to be growing because of deglaciation or progressive melting of glaciers due to climate change,’’ Ramanathan said at the meeting.

The data from Leh station of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) shows a shift in precipitation from winter to summer which sometimes leads to a very high and intense rainfall causing flash floods and cloud bursts. “Such events give rise to the erosion of the fertile soil, destruction of agriculture lands as well as trees and forests in a region where the vegetation is sparse. This converts fertile lands to barren, non-productive ones,” added Ramanatham.

Kulum is a small village, situated about 50 km north of Ladakh’s capital Leh. The 600-odd residents of Kulum village were dependent on spring water and snowfall in winters to meet their water demands, due to lack of other sources such as glacier-melt water. Less snowfall and drying up of springs forced the villagers to move from an agrarian based economy to an industrial-based economy.

The Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh (HIAL) provided a ray of hope for residents of Kulum and made three artificial glaciers called Ice Stupa which solved water crisis and people started to rehabilitate in the village.

‘‘The scarcity of water has become the bane of our lives, without water, we have to nothing do in Ladakh, no purpose to live here anymore. If there is water, we would be able to live here, cultivate our fields, plant trees and raise animals,’’ Padma Stanzin, a resident of Leh, tells Media India Group.

Stanzin adds that in Ladakh desert, the first flow of water in spring is extremely crucial for them, without this, they can’t cultivate their fields and now they have been experiencing drought in these crucial months.

About 80 pc of the cold desert region in India is in the union territory of Ladakh,

From bad to worse

In the past three years, large swathes of India have been hit by heatwaves that are not just hotter, but also longer in duration and start earlier in the year. Take 2022, for instance. Right from mid-March itself, temperatures had started breaking decades-old record and the heatwaves persisted almost for three months from March till mid-June.

March and April in 2022 were also the hottest recorded in 122 years, says India Meteorological Department, adding that in 2022, India recorded its hottest March and India recorded 280 heat wave days from March 11 to May 189, the highest in 12 years. Five states accounted for 54 pc of the heat waves this year. These were Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana, according to State of India’s Environment.

Scientists say that desertification and heatwaves feed on each other. Heatwaves and especially in drought-like conditions lead to enhanced desertification. On its part, desertification leads to dust storms and creates heat islands as suspended particles in the air raise the ambient air temperatures and also trap the heat, prolonging the heatwave and drying out the soil even more, leading to increased desertification.

Desertification is also the principle cause of dust storms. According to a study, dust storms in northern India in May 2018 led to decline air quality, which has repercussions for human health. The high death toll from the severe dust storms that wreaked havoc on the region a year earlier was mostly due to the high winds, which astonished even experts and meteorologists.

‘‘The study highlights and summarises the multiple dangerous effect of dust storms on northern and western India,’’ says Sudipta Sarkar, chief research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The Indo-Gangetic Plain’s densely populated cities, such as Delhi and Kanpur, are vulnerable to wind-borne long-range air pollution from crop residue burning in the north during October and November, and now the study shows that the influence of dust storms within the March-May time frame, says Sarkar.

This places the Indo-Gangetic valley in a unique position in terms of being targeted by these many dangerous circumstances, which are typically outsourced from other areas. ‘‘Indians are exposed to an average of 83.2 μg/cubic metre of PM2.5 pollutants compared to cleaner countries which record a relatively tiny figure of just 8μg / cubic metre,’’ says the study.

Air pollution causes heart disease, lung disease, eye infammation and cerebrovascular disease which lead to stroke. The Global Burden of Disease 2019 study says that around 1.67 million deaths were recorded in India due to air pollution in 2019. According to the study, economic loss due to air pollution in India in 2019 is USD 36.8 billion. Environmental pollution comes at a heavy cost for the society, especially small shopkeepers, auto rickshaw driver and small road side vendor who have little option but to bear the brunt of the air pollution every day.

The uncomfortably hot weather in India is a symptom of a greater problem. The misuse of land and excessive grazing are two of the primary reasons of fast desertification in India’s regions. With 17 percent of the world’s population living on only 2 pc of the world’s tertiary land, land misuse is an unavoidable consequence, say scientists.



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