SPAIN: Desertification is one of Earth’s major environmental problems. Desertification is defined as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification approved it in 1994, and more than 180 of the world’s countries are party to it.
Caused by natural phenomena, such as lack of rain, or by some human activities, desertification threatens a quarter of the planet. It directly affects more than 250 million people and risks the livelihoods of one billion inhabitants of a hundred countries, especially the poorest, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
The main causes of desertification are climate, erosion, ecological factors – the type of soil and ecosystem – and human action. Erosion is the prelude to desertification, since when the air and water drag the surface particles from the soil, it loses the fertile layer, and is left unprotected, the regeneration of the plant cover being increasingly slower. Difficult drainage terrain, torrential rains or drought are other phenomena responsible for desertification.
However, the most damaging factor, along with climate change, is human activity. Fires, indiscriminate logging, over exploitation of aquifers, intensive crops, with massive use of chemicals, and some forestry practices (cultivation of forests or mountains), are some of the examples of human intervention.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), each year nine million hectares of forest are lost in the world, the equivalent of about twelve square meters per inhabitant, with Africa and Latin America being the areas most affected by deforestation.
The case of Spain
As early as 1977, at the UN Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi, a map of deserts was drawn up in which Spain was the only Western European country included with a very high rate of desertification in the entire southeast of the peninsula.
According to the Ministry of the Environment, in Spain more than two thirds of the territory belongs to the category of arid, semi-arid or dry sub-humid areas and therefore potentially affected by the desertification process. The aridity map of Spain shows that the entire southern half falls within this category and the highest mountain ranges, the northern plateau, the Ebro basin and the Catalan coast are saved. By autonomous communities, the most affected are Murcia, the Valencian Community and the Canary Islands, with a high or very high risk of desertification. They are followed by Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia, Madrid, Aragon, the Balearic Islands and Andalusia. In the rest, the risk is very low or null.