23 · Jul · 2021
Photograph by: Enkhuun Byambadorj. A sandstorm hits Ulaanbaatar in March 2021.
As the human population grows and global temperatures increase, the land across the world is becoming more vulnerable to desertification. The change and destruction of drylands result from various factors, such as climate change and soil degradation which is accelerated by human activities that pollute or degrade the quality of soils. Desertification imposes increasing concerns for Mongolia, as the loss of vegetation, growth of sand areas, and drying-out of rivers continue to take place.
What causes desertification?
Arid lands are already fragile. However, when deforestation, overgrazing, improper agricultural practices, and droughts affect these areas, the soil cannot support any vegetation and may become infertile and permanently damaged. In addition, climate change has caused more droughts in recent years, meaning more areas are becoming targets for desertification. About two billion people live in drylands vulnerable to desertification, with the rate of land degradation currently at 30-35 times the historical pace.
What are the effects of desertification?
One of the strongest threats desertification presents to humanity is global food insecurity. The growth in desertification also increases the amount of loose sand and dust that the wind can pick up. This ultimately results in a storm like the recent one that originated in Mongolia in March 2021. Dust storms can also contribute to skin irritation and certain respiratory disorders such as pneumonia and asthma. During these storms, it is crucial to avoid outdoor activities and stay indoors until weather conditions clear up, with doors and windows closed. Covering your nose and mouth with a mask or a damp cloth also reduces exposure to dust particles.
What about desertification in Mongolia?
According to the United Nations, about 90% of Mongolian grassland is vulnerable to desertification. Additionally, 76% of Mongolian pasture land is already degraded. It is estimated that if desertification continues at the current rate, the desert will cover all of Mongolia except for Khentii and Khuvsgul aimags—the region with fertile soil, forests, lakes, and rivers—by 2080. The Mongolian government listed forest fires, unsustainable forestry, and mining activities as leading causes of desertification in the country. A more recent study also reports overgrazing as a leading cause of desertification. The report further highlights the effects of the transition from sheep to goat herding in order to meet export demands for cashmere wool. Out of the more than 70 million livestock in Mongolia, about 29.3 million goats do more damage to grazing lands by eating roots and flowers. Meanwhile, the Gobi desert in southern Mongolia is still expanding.
How can we combat desertification?
One of the most important methods to reduce desertification is planting trees. Reforestation reduces soil erosion and prevents deserts from expanding. In 1996, the United Nations established the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), promoting the Great Green Wall Initiative—an effort to restore 100 million hectares across 20 countries in Africa by 2030. The Mongolian government created the National Plan of Action to Combat Desertification in 1996, promising the promotion of a sustainable pastoral land-use system and sustainable management of forests. Since the President’s 63rd decree to celebrate the National Tree Planting Day was passed in 2010, there have been about 16 million trees and shrubs planted. However, their growth percentages have not been measured yet and it is only one part of combating desertification.
Besides reforestation, other methods to prevent desertification include water management, hyper-fertilization of soil, and soil compaction by using windbreaks, woodlots, and shelterbelts. The Mongolian government needs to enforce rehabilitation requirements for mining companies, collaborate with local communities, and quickly and effectively utilize other methods to reduce soil erosion. Otherwise, the effects of desertification will only become more severe, leaving Mongolia and the rest of the world limited opportunities to restore the land.
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