Combatting land degradation

Improved terracing in this Kenyan field is needed to combat land degradation.

Combatting land degradation


Erosion, pollution, salinization, over-grazing and fires; these are only a few of the many causes of land degradation and desertification in the world. Land degradation costs an estimated €30 billion annually worldwide and affects more than a billion people, especially in the dry lands. Many poor people in these fragile areas are caught in a vicious cycle of land degradation, less yield, less possibilities to invest in land management, which causes more land degradation.

Because politicians are aware of the disastrous effects, 193 countries have signed the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in 1991. However, signing a Convention is just a start. What has to be done now is to set up sound methods, standardized tools, maps and decision models suited to land planners and other professionals that opt for alternative land management practices in the affected regions.

ISRIC assists in several of the international research programs that are set up with this goal. In these programs soil mapping, reviewing (soil) data and training in handling the world soil data are crucial. Land degradation depends from soil type and soil characteristics.

Choose a project:

Although there is a large body of knowledge available on soil threats in Europe, this knowledge is fragmented and incomplete, in particular regarding the complexity and functioning of soil systems and their interaction with human activities. The EU-FP7 project, called RECARE, aims to develop effective prevention, remediation and restoration measures using an innovative transdisciplinary-approach. It will actively integrate and advance knowledge of stakeholders and scientists in 17 case studies, covering a-range of soil threats in different bio-physical and socio-economic environments across Europe.

Terracing, agroforestry, dams or basins? Which of the available soil or water conservation strategies should local residents choose to combat land degradation? That’s not always clear: strategies that are successful in one region, may be unsuitable for another region. Policymakers, NGOs and research institutes, including ISRIC, have developed a roadmap, based on studies and experiences in 18 severely degraded ‘hot spots’. This has been done in the EU-program DESIRE.ISRIC´s contribution consisted of reviewing existing global literature and soil datasets.

Land management practices are needed, but who is going to finance the small farmers that have to invest? In the project GreenWaterCredits, initiated by ISRIC, researchers have conducted scenario- and pilot studies to convince potential financers of the land management credits in the Tana River Basin in South East Kenya The studies show that soil and water practices in the upper area reduces erosion and regulates river base flows in the lower area. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and private water users have set up a Green Water Fund for these upland farmers.

Deforestation, industrialization and unsustainable farming belong to the main drivers of land degradation. In their struggle against it, policymakers need to know which land use systems are destructive, and how land use systems can be changed. In the Global Land Degradation Assessment in Drylands program (GLADA), initiated by FAO in 2006, ISRIC and partners have created a basis for informed policy advice through the assessment of land degradation at different spatial and temporal scales – global, national and regional.

Land users and soil and water conservation specialists have a wealth of know how related to land management, improvement of soil fertility, and protection of soil resources. Together with FAO and the Centre for development and environment of the University of Bern, ISRIC manages the WOCAT network in which 60 institutes participate. WOCAT (World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies) has been documenting soil and land management practices for 20 years. The on line database counts 310 technologies and 170 approaches from over 50 countries.

Nobody knows how serious soil degradation is. ISRIC and PRI-WUR have developed a quantitative methodology that is more precise in relating soil degradation to biomass production and the world-wide loss of productivity. This method incorporates global patterns and trends in satellite measurement of biomass production and simulated biomass production using weather and soil data such as soil depth and soil water holding capacity. It can be applied globally with a high spatial resolution and can therefore contribute well to answer questions on interrelations between ecosystem degradation and economic development