Land Degradation

This section looks at a land degradation definition, causes of land degradation, effects of land degradationland degradation solutions and land degradation facts. The latest land degradation news is included at the foot of the page.

Land degradation definition: refers to human practices and technologies that extract or degrade the land's resources faster than they can be replenished and thus fail to ensure the long-term sustainability of the land.

Causes of land degradation

Land degradation is a process in which the value of the physical environment is affected by a combination of human-induced processes acting upon the land. It is viewed as any change or disturbance to the land perceived to be deleterious or undesirable. Land degradation definitions usually exclude natural causes - examples of which include floods and fires although increasingly, human activity indirectly impacts on these too.

Land degradation measures

Land degradation is a broad term that can be applied differently across a wide range of scenarios. There are various ways of looking at land degradation and its impact on the environment around it:


A temporary or permanent decline in the productive capacity of the land. This can be seen through a loss of biomass, a loss of actual productivity or in potential productivity, or a loss or change in vegetative cover and soil nutrients.

Action in the land's capacity to provide resources for human livelihoods. This can be measured from a base line of past land use.

Loss of biodiversity: A loss of range of species or ecosystem complexity as a decline in the environmental quality.


Shifting ecological risk: increased vulnerability of the environment or people to destruction or crisis. This is measured through a base line in the form of pre-existing risk of crisis or destruction.


A problem with defining land degradation is that what one group of people might view as degradation, others might view as a benefit or opportunity underlining the tensions over land use.

Land degradation types

There are numerous types of land degradation that have been described.


The more established types have been joined by a raft of new variants in more recent times.


Traditional types include:

  • wind-induced land degradation
  • mechanically-induced land degradation (mechanised agricultural practices)
  • biologically-induced degradation (e.g. cattle grazing)

Emerging in more recent times:

  • pollution, often chemical, due to agricultural, industrial,   mining or commercial activities
  • loss of arable land due to urban construction
  • artificial radioactivity, sometimes accidental
  • land-use constraints associated with armed conflicts

Land degradation causes

Land degradation is a global problem largely related to agricultural use.


Causes include:

  • Agricultural depletion of soil nutrients through poor farming practices
  • Livestock including overgrazing 
  • Inappropriate irrigation
  • Vehicle off-roading
  • Quarrying of stone, sand, ore and minerals
  • Increase in field size due to economies of scale, reducing shelter for wildlife, as hedgerows and copses disappear
  • Exposure of naked soil after harvesting by heavy equipment
  • Monoculture, destabilizing the local ecosystem
  • Dumping of non-biodegradable trash, such as plastics
  • Soil degradation, e.g. soil contamination, soil erosion, soil acidification, loss of soil carbon
  • Climate change (man-made) leading to sea level rises making once-fertile areas too saline (salty) for agricultural purposes
  • Improper use of fertilisers, particulalry nitrogen and phosphorous

Effects of land degradation

Pollution and clogging of waterways from land degradation

Most of the soil eroded from the land together with the chemical fertilisers and pesticides utilised in agricultural fields are discharged into waterways and streams.


With time, the sedimentation process can clog waterways, resulting in water scarcity. The agricultural fertilisers and pesticides also damage marine and freshwater ecosystems and the limits the domestic uses of the water for the populations that depend on them for survival.

Increased flooding risk from land degradation

Land degradation leads to the removal of soil compostion which which plays a role in water retention and absorptions.


For this reason, the transformed land is unable to soak up water, making flooding more frequent.


In other words, soil degradation takes away the soil’s natural capability of holding water thus contributing to more and more cases of flooding.

Loss of arable land from soil depletion

Because soil degradation contributes to land degradation, it also means that it creates a significant loss of arable land. The literal translation of arable land is "able to be ploughed".


About 40% of the world’s agricultural land is lost on the account of soil quality depreciation caused by agro-chemicals and soil erosion.


Most of the crop production practices result in the topsoil loss and the damage of soil’s natural composition that make agriculture possible.

Drought and aridity caused by land degradation

Drought and aridity are problems highly influenced and amplified by soil degradation. As much as it’s a concern associated with natural environments in arid and semi-arid areas, the United Nations recognizes the fact that drought and aridity are man-made (anthropogenic) factors especially as an outcome of soil degradation.


Hence, the contributing factors to soil quality decline such as overgrazing, poor tillage methods, and deforestation are also the leading causes of desertification characterized by droughts and arid conditions. In the same context, soil degradation may also bring about loss of biodiversity.

Soil quality reduction from land degradation

Soil quality decline is one of the main causes of land degradation and is considered to be responsible for 84% of the ever diminishing acreage. Year after year, huge acres of land lost due to soil erosion, contamination and pollution. About 40% of the world’s agricultural land is severely diminished in quality because of erosion and the use of chemical fertilisers, which prevent land from regenerating.


The decline in soil quality as a result of agricultural chemical fertilisers also further leads to water and land pollution thereby lowering the land’s worth on earth.

The value of land

The Economics of Land Degradation initiative (ELD) produced this short information film on the importance of the economics of Land Degradation. It depicts the value of productive land in provision of ecosystem services and goes on to show the current rapid depletion of this valuable non-renewable resource.


About ELD:  an initiative for a global study on the economic benefits of land and land based ecosystems. The initiative highlights the value of sustainable land management and provides a global approach for analysis of the economics of land degradation. It aims to make economics of land degradation an integral part of policy strategies and decision making by increasing the political and public awareness of the costs and benefits of land and land-based ecosystems.

Land degradation solutions

Personal and governmental actions to reduce land degradation

Reducing deforestation

Avoiding deforestation completely is not practical. However, deforestation activities can be mitigated and altered reshaping and restoring forests and vegetative cover. Populations need educational resources to allow them knowledge on sustainable forest management and reforestation methodologies. 


There is a requirement to elevate human consciousness the world over to respect forest cover and reduce some of the human-driven actions that encourage deforestation. With the reduction of deforestation, soil’s ability to naturally regenerate can be restored. Governments, international organisations, and other environmental stakeholders need to ensure there are appropriate measures for making zero net deforestation a reality so as to inhibit soil degradation.


Land reclamation

The outcomes of soil erosion and quality decline are widely irreversible. Still, soil organic matter and plant nutrients can be replenished. To restore the lost soil mineral matter and organic content, it would require what is known as land reclamation. Land reclamation encompasses activities centered towards restoring the previous organic matter and the soil’s vital minerals. This may include activities such as the addition of plant residues to degraded soils and improving range management.


Salinised soils can be restored by salt level correction reclamation projects and salinity control. One of the simplest but most forgotten methods of land reclamation is the planting of vegetation such as trees, crops, and flowers over the affected soils. Plants act as protective covers as they are helpful at making the soil stronger by stabilising the land surface.


Preventing salinisation

Just like the old adage states that “prevention is better than cure,” so the same applies in solving the worldwide problem of soil degradation through salinisation. The costs of preventing salinisation are much cheaper than the reclamation projects in salinised areas.


Consequently, actions such as reducing irrigation, planting salt tolerant crops, and improving irrigation efficiency will have high pay offs because the inputs and the labor-demanding aspects associated with reclamation projects are zero. Preventing salanisation in the first place is thus a more environmentally friendly solution to the problem at hand.


Conservation techniques in land cultivation

Proper land cultivation mechanisms hold as one of the most sustainable ways of avoiding soil quality decline. This is otherwise known as conservation tillage, which means techniques and mechanisms targeted at making very minimal changes to the soil’s natural condition and at the same time improving the soil’s productivity. 


Some examples of conservation techniques:

  • Strip farming: the practice in which cultivated crops are sown in alternative strips to prevent water movement.
  • Crop rotation: practice in which different crops are grown in same area following a rotation system which helps in replenishment of the soil.
  • Ridge and furrow soil formation: soil erosion is one of the factors responsible for land degradation. It can be prevented by the formation of ridge and furrow soil patterns which, during irrigation, which lessens run off.
  • Construction of dams: this usually checks or reduces the velocity of run off so that soil can support vegetation.
  • Contour farming: this type of farming is usually practiced across a hill side and is useful in collecting and diverting the run off to avoid erosion.
  • Leaving the previous year’s crop residue on the surface to shield the soil from erosion.
  • Avoiding poor tillage methods such as deep plowing.



Land degradation facts

24 billion tons of fertile soil lost every year

7.3 million hectares of forest lost every year

1 hectare = 10,000 square metres (100m x 100m) area through deforestation. Figures above based on a recent report by the UNFAO.

In 1960, there was around 0.5 hectares of farmland per person on Earth, by 2020, that figure will have fallen by two thirds

Up to 40% of the world's agricultural land is thought to be badly degraded

Source: The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report. It assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. From 2001 to 2005, the MA involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide.

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