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The connection between Drought and Desertification

Drought and desertification have a substantial environmental, social, and economic impact. The association between drought and desertification is vicious and presents significant ecological, social, and economic challenges across the globe. According to Borgen Project (2019), desertification affects every continent except Antarctica. United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) projects that 36 million square miles of land on the globe are currently affected by desertification. UNEP’s data shows that about 1 billion people live in areas vulnerable to desertification. Besides, UNEP estimates that if measures are not taken to stop the environmental crisis, about 135 million may be displaced by 2045 due to desertification. The severe impacts of desertification and drought thus require in-depth understanding. In this context, the following article examines the connection between drought and desertification and provides some real examples in different parts of the world.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) defines desertification as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities” (McSweeney, 2019). Based on the definition, desertification does not mean the expansion of deserts, but it is a term that encompasses land degradation and deterioration of the productivity of the land. On the other hand, drought is a prolonged dry period in the natural climate cycle where insufficient rains result in water shortage (McSweeney, 2019). The connection between desertification is in the causes, and the phenomenon affects each other. For instance, the cause of desertification is a combination of human activities and natural happenings. Human activities entail poor land management policies and practices that contribute to desertification. They include overgrazing, over-cultivation of crops, deforestation, and other monoculture practices. On the other hand, the climatic factors are the natural fluctuations in rains, global warming, and greenhouse gas emissions that adversely affect the rain patterns. The climatic causes of desertification can thus be denoted as drought, which implies that drought contributes to desertification.

Drought and desertification are closely related to environmental phenomena. If the drought persists for many months and years, it will adversely affect the environment and socioeconomic ways of life (Tsesmelis et al., 2019). The impact on the environment includes drying plants and exposing the ground to erosion, which decreases its productivity. It is worth underscoring that drought is mainly a natural phenomenon. However, human activities that adversely affect the local climate and land degradation can exacerbate the drought. For example, across the globe, uncontrolled deforestation has contributed to the depletion of water towers and, in turn, altered the rain patterns.

Human activities cause desertification and, in turn, influence natural processes such as rains, thus causing drought. According to Tsesmelis et al. (2019), desertification is a complex phenomenon mainly caused by human activities and exacerbated by climatic conditions. Tsesmelis et al. further note that poor land use through such activities as deforestation, overexploitation of water resources, and monoculture can cause land degradation and aggravate drought. For example, in Brazil, deforestation has contributed to losing large tracks of forest lands. In turn, the climates of the places have been affected, exposing the affected region to drought (Tomasella et al., 2018). As a result, over the years, southern Brazil has suffered unprecedented drought due to forest loss. Also, deforestation disrupts cloud formation and accentuates seasonality. Therefore, in the case example of Brazil, deforestation in Amazon has decreased the amount of rain in the southern part of the country and extended the drought effect (Tomasella et al., 2018). From this example, it is evident that causes of desertification, such as deforestation, contribute to drought.

Risk of drought 2030 – 2100 for RCP8.5 scenario “business as usual”

Climatic changes that cause extended drought cause reduced biological productivity. Studies have shown that areas with bare soil and lack rain over an extended time are more vulnerable to degradation due to the unprotected soil, making them susceptible to severe erosion. Thus, the high soil erosion rates serve as a good proxy for desertification (Tomasella et al., 2018). The desertification effect, on the other hand, causes drought. Notably, drought occurs mainly in desert areas because the lack of vegetation implies that the moisture or transpiration from forest/trees is lacking. Therefore, the normal rain formation cycle reduces due to desertification and causes drought. As a result, even though there are myriad factors that cause drought and desertification, there is a close and vicious relationship between drought and desertification, where each phenomenon leads to the other.

In addition to the example of Brazil, where deforestation has contributed to drought, there are many other regions where drought and desertification are being experienced. Africa is one of the continents that have been prone to droughts and desertification, with either of the phenomenon exacerbating the effect (Borgen Project, 2019). The grasslands of the East Africa, the Sahara desert, and the Kalahari Dessert have been exposed to severe drought, and desertification has been growing (Borgen Project, 2019). The effect of drought is adverse on climatic and leads to socio-economic impacts. For instance, due to desertification, drought episodes arising from global warming have increased, and many people’s economic livelihoods have been affected. In Syria, global warming caused drought which led to 60% of the country’s arable land turning to desert and caused significant social and economic crises (Al Gore, 2016).

In conclusion, drought and desertification are closely connected, with each contributing to the other. Across the globe, desertification and drought are happening in all continents and are causing socioeconomic crises that include people’s displacement. As a result, the connection between the two phenomena is in the causal mechanism and their adverse effect on the environment and people.


  • Al Gore. (2016, February 25). The case for optimism on climate change. TED Talk. [Video file]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7E1v24Dllk.
  • Borgen Project. (2019, June 22). Where is desertification happening? 
  • McSweeney, R. (2019). Explainer: ‘Desertification’ and the role of climate change. Carbon Brief.
  • Tomasella, J., Vieira, R. M. S. P., Barbosa, A. A., Rodriguez, D. A., de Oliveira Santana, M., &  Sestini, M. F. (2018). Desertification trends in the Northeast of Brazil over the period 2000–2016.
    International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, 73, 197-206.
  • Tsesmelis, D. E., Karavitis, C. A., Oikonomou, P. D., Alexandris, S., & Kosmas, C. (2019).
    Assessment of the vulnerability to drought and desertification characteristics using the standardized drought vulnerability index (SDVI) and the environmentally sensitive areas index (ESAI). Resources, 8(1), 6-20.

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