Why 37 Percent Of India’s Land Is Turning Into A Desert

Representational Image: Varun Ramesh / 7MB
Climate change and human activities are degrading and desertifying India's land, posing a real threat to existence.

More than four thousand years ago, the Indus Valley Civilization faded into the sands of time. But for many years, we did not know the cause of its decline. In 2014, researchers from the University of Cambridge found the missing link between India’s past and the present – drought. Or more precisely, 200 years of it.

By studying the concentration of Oxygen levels in the shells of snails buried deep beneath layers of sediment, they found that the region had gone two centuries without a summer monsoon. Other studies correlated this to a likelihood that the Harappans changed their cultivation patterns. From wheat and barley to millets and rice, the ancients started fielding smaller patches of land. The steady decline of large cities soon followed.

And the Harappans were no more.

Today, India’s cities are larger than they have ever been. The subcontinent supports up to a fourth of the world’s population. But a steady and sure menace is poised to repeat history. Monsoons can fail for years at a time, but desertification is permanent. NASA’s Earth Observatory calls it the “permanent degradation of previously fertile land.”

In India, nearly a third of the Total Geographic Area (TGA) is being degraded every year, according to the country’s national space agency’s ‘Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India‘. The data shows that 29.32 percent of TGA was undergoing land degradation in 2011-13, compared to 28.76 percent in 2003-05.

Land degradation takes many forms in India’s incredibly diverse geography. In the Thar deserts of Rajasthan, it’s the gradual spread of the desert into the surrounding plains. In the icy Himalayan plains, it’s the shattering of rocks by the spread of ice (where water seeps into the rocks, freezes, expands and then breaks). And across India, it’s the loss of vegetation to human activities, weakening the soil plant by missing plant.

Most of this degradation was happening in the states of Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat, Goa, Maharashtra, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana. Of these, the first five are facing desertification in more than 50 percent of their total area.

However, 2013 was a long time ago and a lot can change in four years. Which is why the results were even more shocking when, in December 2016, the Environment Minister stated that more than 37 percent of the country was undergoing some form of land degradation.

Representational Image: Varun Ramesh/ 7MB

Ironically, the blame for the largest factor causing desertification is water – too much or too violent of it. More than 10.98 percent of desertification is the result of water erosion.

With every passing year, India’s situation grows more precarious. For desertification is linked to more than just urban growth – but also to climate change. Some scholars suggest that the creation of large ‘dust-bowls’ (similar to those in the United States during the 1930’s) could be the single most catastrophic consequence of climate change.

It’s a serious threat, which is why, in 1994, the United Nations Convention for Combating Desertification was held. As the United Nations points out, 1.5 billion people worldwide depend on land that is already degrading.

India became a signatory to the convention, and promised to achieve ‘land degradation neutral’ status by 2030. This is a point where the amount of healthy and productive land stays constant or increases every year. And in that time frame, there’s hope for change.

Afforestation is a big factor in achieving healthy soil. And in the last two years, India has broken world records back to back in planting forests on a massive scale. In 2016, volunteers planted 50 million trees in a single go in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The next year, 66 million were planted at a go in Madhya Pradesh.

However, only about 60 percent of such saplings tend to survive.

Other approaches to tackling desertification include the building of walls. A great wall – of greenery. In China, the Great Green Wall is a line of trees being planted along the 4500-kilometre border with the Gobi desert. A similar effort is underway in Africa, which aims to contain the growing Sahara desert.

In India, efforts are underway to change cultivation patterns and improve agricultural productivity. In regions struck by desertification, maize farms have been started, promising greater employment and incomes to struggling farmers.

As we change our ways to better utilize the land we have, we ironically reflect the final acts of the Harappans. But unlike the Harappans, we have the power to make conscious choices and adopt policies that help prevent catastrophic situations. We can only hope that the Indian Republic does not become the next Indus Valley Civilization – lost under the sands of time, yet again.


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