Spain hosts the Desertification and Drought Day on June 17
"Rising up from drought together" is the theme of this year's World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Spain is chosen by the UN as host to draw attention to increasing drought everywhere around the globe and its impacts. Spain is definitely a good choice, because it is the EU-country that is most at risk of becoming a desert. The heat wave that grip Spain this week only highlights the need of urgent action, here and elsewhere. Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Ribera (also Minister of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge) wants to "make everyone aware of the great threat that drought poses to millions of people and ecosystems around the world."
The sunlit climate, varied landscapes and natural assets have not only contributed to Spain's reputation as a popular holiday destination, but also made it a major producer of vegetable oils, vegetables, fruits, legumes and cereals. But these apparent blessings turn out to have a dark side, or better, a white-hot side. Industrial farming and mass tourism are putting great pressure on the natural resources. Soils are being depleted and eroded and there are extreme water shortages and heat waves that make Spain extremely vulnerable to desertification.
Sahara coming to Europe?
Contrary to what is sometimes thought, desertification has nothing to do with large orange dust clouds (calimas) or beautiful golden sand dunes that advance from the Sahara to Europe. Desertification is the result of drought and soil degradation, the phenomenon whereby soil loses its natural ability to support crops, plant growth and forests and to carry out ecosystem services.
Soil degradation occurs when natural vegetation has to make way for agriculture and urban planning. In particular, industrial agriculture, which has expanded enormously since World War II, damages soil health through the use of artificial fertilizers (nitrogen), pesticides, planting of monocultures (low biodiversity), driving of heavy machinery (nowadays a combine harvester has the weight of a diplodocus), and fields lying fallow/barren. Excessive irrigation can cause soil salinization, also a trigger of soil degradation.
Water holding capacity
A healthy soil covered by a layer of vegetation is a living ecosystem that acts as a climate buffer thanks to a rich microfauna and a high content of humus and organic matter. It retains water and nutrients, and it can overcome a dry period thanks to its water retention capacity. But with poor land and soil management, soil life dies, the humus decomposes and the soil aggregates, which normally stick together by sticky organic substances, fall apart. This way the soil loses its water holding capacity and the typical spongy structure. As a result, even tougher plants have difficulty anchoring their roots in the soil. And this creates a domino effect.
During drought, a degraded soil devoid of vegetation, immediately loses its water and the impoverished soil life suffers more than ever. Processes such as soil erosion can now reign: the loose soil particles are washed away by rain and surface run-off, or blow away in the wind. And then the underlying bedrock is exposed and bare, lifeless Martian landscapes are created where nothing or very little can grow. And that is how you get a desert.
Therefore, actions are needed to combat desertification and drought, through sustainable soil and land management, avoiding water losses in farming and at communal and domestic levels, reforestation, and sustainable farming. And at the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and other environmental organizations, people are working hard to increase awareness.
Read more about desertification and soil erosion in Spain on GondwanaTalks.
Bonne, K. 5 May 2022: The Dust Bowl comes to Spain: desertification and soil erosion. GondwanaTalks online magazine, 2022. https://www.gondwanatalks.com/l/the-dust-bowl-comes-to-spain-desertification-and-soil-erosion/
Press release, Gobierno de España, Ministerio para la Transicion Ecologica y el Reto Demográfico, 21/04/2022, España será la sede del Día de la Desertificación y la Sequía 2022">https://www.miteco.gob.es/es/prensa/ultimas-noticias/espa%C3%B1a-ser%C3%A1-la-sede-del-d%C3%ADa-de-la-desertificaci%C3%B3n-y-la-sequ%C3%ADa-2022-/tcm:30-539565
Article by Kathelijne Bonne, geologist and soil scientist. I also write on GondwanaTalks online magazine, and on De Planeetzusjes (Dutch).