Desertification and Global Drought

A NextGen Blog post by Johanna Mitra, Stony Brook University.
All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Johanna Mitra is currently an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University. She is majoring in ecosystems and human impact with a focus on wildlife conservation and minoring in geospatial science.

As a megadrought continues to damage crops and fuel wildfires in America’s West, drought is also redefining landscapes elsewhere through the process of desertification. Desertification is defined as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, collectively known as drylands, resulting from many factors, including human activities and climatic variations.”[mfn]Mirzabaev, Alisher et al.[/mfn] Unsustainable land management, rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns can all contribute to the desertification of a region. Africa is especially vulnerable to the effects of land degradation, since 70% of people in Africa rely on farming as their source of income on land that is already barely able to nourish crops.[mfn]Gettleman, Jeffrey[/mfn] In fact, one study, using satellite imagery of Africa, revealed that more than 40 million Africans are farming on increasingly, unproductive land.[mfn]Gettleman, Jeffrey[/mfn] This article explores how desertification is impacting NWNL’s three African case study watersheds – from their local economies to their indigenous communities and intricate ecosystems. As well, unproductive farmland also threatens Maasai livelihoods in the Amboseli-Mt. Kilimanjaro Ecosystem, a NWNL Spotlight.

Nile River Basin

Although many countries in the Nile River Basin are at risk of experiencing desertification in the coming years, the situation in Egypt is becoming dire. About 97% of Egypt’s population occupies just 4% of the country’s land, and are congregated in and around the Nile River Delta and the Nile River Valley. The other 96% is already desert.[mfn]IUCN[/mfn] For farmers relying on the limited fertile region surrounding the Nile for their livelihoods, the threat of desertification is coming from all sides. Saltwater intrusion in the region’s groundwater is turning arable land barren, as the Nile’s seasonal floods no longer arrive with the same regularity to keep salinity levels down.[mfn]Shenker, Jack[/mfn] In the Nile Delta, sea level rise is beginning to force the displacement of millions into already overcrowded cities and villages further upriver. (See our NextGen blog on sea level rise along the coast of Egypt’s Nile Delta here.) As farmers’ demands and urban development increase to accommodate such growth, some estimates predict that there will be a 70% drop in the amount of freshwater reaching the Nile River Delta over the next 50 years.[mfn]Shenker, Jack[/mfn]

Canal carrying Nile water to Lake Toshka for storage of 2 years of water supplies in Upper Egypt

This water stress has already resulted in decreased crop productivity, with two of Egypt’s biggest crops – corn and wheat – projected to decline by as much as 20% by 2050.[mfn]IUCN[/mfn] Local farmers can also expect to lose up to $1,000 per hectare for every degree the average global temperature rises, according to Egypt’s Soil, Water, and Environment Research Institute.[mfn]Shenker, Jack[/mfn] Given Egypt’s status as a country with “very high to high desertification sensitivity,” climate change and continuous urban growth combined put the country at high risk of its only arable land becoming irreversibly degraded.

Mara River Basin

The Mara River Basin is facing a similar predicament as Egypt. In Kenya, much of the only araable land has been overgrazed and its soil quality degraded to the point where nothing can grow. Population growth and demand for land has left some farmers living off an area “not much bigger than a tennis court.”[mfn]Gettleman, Jeffrey[/mfn] The Maasai are feeling the effects of desertification acutely. Their semi-nomadic lifestyle and pastoral practices of herding cattle and other livestock is dependent on the availability of grazing lands and freshwater. Drought is one of the leading causes of livestock mortality and pastoralism itself accounts for 95% of Kenyans’ livelihoods.[mfn]Huho, Julius et al.[/mfn]

Maasai communities in both Kenya and northern Tanzania also find themselves during periods of drought forced to relocate more often and travel longer distances to find water. This has led to an increase in conflicts and disputes over land between farmers and pastoralists.[mfn]Kimaro, Esther et al.[/mfn] Should desertification in the region worsen, the Maasai in the Mara River Basin and other pastoralist groups will find themselves unable to live the way they have in the region for thousands of years. This has also affected Maasai in the Amboseli-Mount Kilimanjaro ecosystem, especially after the extreme 2008/9 drought when 70% of their livestock died, leaving local Maasai with no options other than farming on soil they’ve ruined due to excessive use of fertilizer and pesticides, as well as employing poor water management techniques.

Maasai pastoralists walked 7 days or more during 2009 drought to find grazing land for their cattle

Omo River Basin

Lake Turkana is the terminus of the Omo River, the largest desert lake in the world, and of critical importance to the Turkana people. Their pastoral and fishing lifestyles, long practiced in this semi-arid region of Kenya, are dependent on the lake’s ability to provide clean and safe water. However, rising average temperatures causing higher rates of evaporation and sustained periods of drought have made scarcity of precious, potable water – and now even scarcer – the cause of greater food insecurity as crops struggle to grow and livestock lose valuable grazing areas.[mfn]Wasike, Andrew[/mfn]

The desertification beginning to occur in this region highlights the difficulties of transboundary water management, as many Kenyans struggle with repercussions of Ethiopia’s water-related infrastructure. Large-scale, hydro-dam projects like the Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Gibe River—a tributary of the Omo River that provides 90% of Lake Turkana’s water—have also severely altered the river’s natural flooding that enabled 6,000 years of traditional flood recession agriculture.[mfn]Human Rights Watch[/mfn] As a result, some estimate Lake Turkana is receiving only about 30% of its usual amount of water, putting the lake at risk of eventually drying up.[mfn]Vidal, John[/mfn] Local Turkana people fear the loss of their fisheries and farms, prompting the worry that the lake’s lower levels, or perhaps even disappearance, might lead to conflict with other ethnic groups in the area.[mfn]Vidal, John[/mfn]

A Lake Turkana tributary, parched due to upstream irrigation, extraction and climate change

Combating Desertification

Desertification in these three river basins will have severe and long-lasting impacts on their surrounding environments, local economies and the communities living within them. Even without consideration of increasing climate change effects, returning the land to its original condition will take decades, especially given that the natural regeneration of soil and vegetation in arid and semi-arid parts of the world can take up to 10 times longer than in areas with regular rainfall.[mfn]Clarke, Jody[/mfn]

Yet, there are several ways conservationists and communities are working to mitigate and adapt to the effects of desertification. For instance, the Egyptian government developed a way to use city sewage to promote native tree growth in 36 “desert locations” throughout the country.[mfn]Ristau, Oliver[/mfn] Once treated, the waste products can provide the trees with the necessary nutrients to grow and decrease the amount of water needed to sustain them. These “tree plantations” can then fertilize and strengthen the soil against erosion, making them one of the strongest defenses against desertification, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.[mfn]Ristau, Oliver[/mfn]

In the Mara River Basin, the Maasai have begun to adopt indigenous livestock breeds, such as red Maasai sheep, into their herds.[mfn]Clarke, Jody[/mfn] Native species are able to withstand periods of drought better than the livestock commonly imported from elsewhere.

Lastly, in Kenya’s northern Turkana County (directly south of the Omo River), NGOs, villages, and village leaders are urging the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments to acknowledge and work to remedy the damage hydro-dams cause to the environment and economies downriver.


Clarke, Jody. “Maasai: A Parched Land That Yields Only Suffering.” Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, August 24, 2010. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “Loss of Fertile Land Fuels ‘Looming Crisis’ Across Africa.” New York Times, July 29, 2017. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

Huho, Julius et al. “Living With Drought: The Case of the Maasai Pastoralists of

Kimaro, Esther et al. “Climate change perception and impacts on cattle production in pastoral communities of northern Tanzania.” Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice, July 20, 2018. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

Mirzabaev, Alisher et al. “Special Report on Climate Change and Land: Chapter 3: Desertification.” IPCC, 2019. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

Northern Kenya.” International Journal of Current Research, Vol. 3, Issue, 2, pp.024-034, February 2011. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

“Resilience to Climate Change Along the Nile in Egypt.” IUCN, n.d. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

Ristau, Oliver. “Sewage effluent fights desertification in Egypt.” Deutsche Welle, June 17, 2016. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

Shenker, Jack. “Nile Delta: ‘We are going underwater. The sea will conquer our lands’.” The Guardian, August 20, 2009. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

“There is No Time Left”: Climate Change, Environmental Threats, and Human Rights in Turkana County, Kenya.” Human Rights Watch, October 15, 2015. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

Vidal, John. “Ethiopia dam will turn Lake Turkana into ‘endless battlefield’, locals warn.” The Guardian, Jan 13, 2015. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

Wasike, Andrew. “Climate change threatens Kenya’s Turkana communities.” Deutsche Welle, October 30, 2015. Accessed on July 19, 2021 by JM.

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