Can We Turn Back the Deserts In an Age of Climate Change?

Sami Grover
Published: January 20, 2017

A general view shows a palm field suffering from desertification on October 27, 2016 near Morocco's southeastern oasis town of Erfoud, north of Er-Rissani in the Sahara Desert. The oasis of Tafilalet near Er-Rissane is at risk of disappearing as the area is drying up due to global warming.
(FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent study, published in the journal Science, suggests that the Mediterranean region will witness a degree of desertification not seen in recorded history thanks, in large part, to the impact of manmade climate change. Disturbingly, this projection applies even in a scenario in which the global community is able to keep global climate change within the window of 2°C — a goal which is by no means guaranteed. Forests will be pushed further up the mountains in the Middle East. The southern deserts of Morocco will be pushed further north and — if world leaders fail to get serious and emissions continue unchecked — then much of southern Spain could become desert too.


So, what can be done?


The first place to start, of course, is to step up our transition to a low carbon economy. Indeed the localized threats of drought and desertification may be one of the reasons why Morocco has become a somewhat unexpected clean energy leader — pushing for 52% renewable electricity by 2030 and a short-term goal of adding 2 gigawatts (GW) of solar power by 2020 at the latest.


Unfortunately, with global carbon emissions only now (possibly) flatlining, it’s an absolute scientific certainty that we have many decades of warming already “baked in.”  Drought- and desertification-prone regions will need to start making plans for holding back the deserts and keeping landscapes green. Fortunately, there’s some precedent out there for doing just that.


Acacia trees are pictured in Senegal's Louga region, part of the Great Green Wall (GGW), a lush 15km (10 mile) wide strip of different plant species, meant to span the 7,600km from Senegal to Djibouti to halt desertification.

Ethiopia, for example, has made significant progress in reversing desertification caused by droughts, flooding and overgrazing during the 1970s. As detailed in The Guardian, a program of community-centered agroecology and managed grazing has led to hundreds of thousands of hectares being restored to greenery — as well as a commitment to regreen a further 15 million hectares by 2030 at the latest. The key to success with these initiatives — and with similar programs to restore and protect dryland forests in the Sahel region — appears to be a focus on meeting the needs of local populations. Rather than simply closing off land and resettling farmers, government agencies and development groups have worked on promoting land management practices where populations’ food and fuel needs can be met without denuding the landscape.


News agencies in China, too, are reporting significant progress in the fight against desertification. While deserts were expanding at a rate of 10,400 square km a year in the late 1990s, the State Forestry Administration reports that this has now shrunk to an average of 2,424 square km. China has committed to restoring 10 million hectares of desertified land by 2020 — a figure which the government claims accounts for half of the country’s reclaimable deserts. Others have questioned the efficacy of China’s authoritarian focus, suggesting that its grassland restoration initiatives are sometimes little more than ethnic resettlement programs for herder communities. It seems fair to say that any assessment of China’s policies needs to also take human rights, transparency and good governance issues into consideration.


Not all efforts to reverse desertification are achieved at the government or non-profit level. Sometimes, determined individuals can make a significant impact all by themselves. Brazilian farmer Ernst Gotsch, for example, bought a tract of 1,200 acres of completely deforested land in 1984. The parcel was so denuded and degraded that the locals called it "Dry Lands.” A couple of decades and a carefully managed program of regenerative agriculture have since turned the land into a fascinating, diverse and totally re-greened polyculture which has so radically altered the landscape that Gotsch claims a significant increase in rainfall too.


The Yueyaquan Crescent Lake in Dunhuang, in China's northwestern Gansu province. Formerly a silk route hub and centre for trade between China and the West, Dunhuang relies heavily on tourism and features a number of historic sites dating back to the Han Dynasty. The city has an arid climate and is surrounded by sand dunes, a result of increasing desertification.
(Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

There are similar stories across the globe. From Jadav "Molai" Payeng who planted 1,360 acres of forest in his native India, to Wangari Maathai  — founder of the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya —  there’s no shortage of citizens who have taken it upon themselves to make significant contributions to regreening their landscapes.


There are, in short, plenty of reason to hope that the Mediterranean region — and other regions hardest hit by climate change — can take steps to hold back the deserts. That said, we must be careful not to get too complacent. Climate change, after all, means the very fundamentals of a region’s growing conditions will have been altered for decades and even centuries to come. While Ethiopians may have been able to replant landscapes degraded by overgrazing, for example, there’s no guarantee that similar measures would work once temperatures are permanently higher or rainfall patterns have been significantly altered.


Still, there’s a Chinese proverb that says “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Never has this been more true. The longer we leave it to start planning for, defending against and reversing the impact of climate change and desertification, the harder time we will have in winning the battle.


Luckily, we’ll be following in well-trodden footsteps.


Sami Grover is a writer, and creative director at The Change Creation, a brand creation agency that works with entities who make the world better, fairer or truer. Clients include Larry’s Beans, Burt's Bees, Canaan Fair Trade and Jada Pinkett Smith/Overbrook Entertainment.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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