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Desertification is a serious global ecological problem that affects 40 percent of the Earth’s surface  and about 1 billion people in more than 100 countries.

Desertification is a type of land degradation in which dry regions become increasingly arid, losing water bodies as well as plants and animals. It is caused by human activity and by a variety of natural factors and processes.

Most deserts are located in the savannahs of Africa, the Great Plains and Pampas of the Americas, the steppes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, sparsely populated areas of Australia, and some parts of the Mediterranean. The largest deserts in the world were formed by natural processes. For a long time, these deserts expanded and shrank without human interference. 

However, for several thousands of years human beings have exerted an influence on desertification. This influence is particularly strong in arid areas, where constant cattle grazing has killed the already sparse vegetation. Trees and shrubs have been cut down, and land has been ploughed despite not being suitable for crop farming. Activities such as these have dried out the top layers of the soil, and the desertification process has been exacerbated by wind erosion. Many wells have dried up due to the falling levels of groundwater. Many rivers have had their flows regulated, and the construction of dams has further disrupted the water balance. Water imbalance gradually breaks down the soil structure, as mineral salts saturate the affected areas. Once the natural balance has been completely destroyed, river basins are transformed into desert landscapes.

Most of the world’s grain production and cattle grazing still takes place in water-deficient areas. Human activities that contribute most to accelerating desertification are over-farming on arable land, over-grazing, deforestation, and the use of outdated modes of irrigation.

Desertification leads to:

  • slower recovery from the impacts of climate change;
  • reduced soil fertility;
  • damage to the vegetation structure, leading to the replacement of edible plants with inedible varieties;
  • the loss of protective plant cover, which can result in frequent severe flooding that fills rivers and lakes with silt and affects water quality;
  • dust in the air, which causes respiratory problems, eye infections, and viruses and allergies in human populations;
  • reduced food production; and
  • forced migrations.

At least 250 million people are already affected by desertification, and 1 billion people in more than 100 countries around the world may be affected in the very near feature. The vast majority of those most affected by desertification are poor.

In an effort to address the problem collectively, on June 17, 1994, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention to Combat Desertification. Parties to the convention are responsible for creating an enabling environment and are required to provide “effective participation for local, national and regional non-governmental organisations and the local population”. Most countries have ratified the convention, including Belarus.

Belarus is affected by the problem of land degradation due to the country's high levels of land cultivation:

  • The country has a total land area of 207,598 km2, made up of agricultural land, including arable land (43 percent); forestland and shrub cover (43.7 percent); wetlands (4.3 percent); water bodies (4.2 percent); and buildings and transport and communication infrastructure (4.2 percent). The remaining 2.6 percent of land is either damaged or unused.
  • Most of the land in Belarus is affected by one or more kinds of degradation, whether erosion (wind, soil, water), chemical or radionuclide contamination, or loss of topsoil and natural vegetation.
  • The draining of wetlands is a particular cause for concern. To date, up to 1.45 million hectares of peatland have been drained, including 1.1 million hectares for agricultural purposes. Intensive farming in these areas rapidly destroys the peat: around 65 percent of these soils have peat layers of less than 1 metre, and more than 90 percent of peatlands in Palessie lie on top of sand deposits. In total, some 190,000 hectares of peatland have already lost their peat layer.
  • Aside from its high economic costs, soil erosion also damages the quality of surface waters and groundwater and affects the biodiversity of aquatic and semi-aquatic ecosystems. Scientists predict prolonged and frequent droughts, severe frosts, a greater number of storms, excessive rainfall and intensified soil erosion in the near future. Significant changes in air temperature have been recorded in just the past decade. It is no coincidence that the United Nations identified land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change as priority challenges for the 2010–2020 period.

Land degradation in Belarus is caused by:

  • the erosion of soil by water and wind;
  • the chemical contamination of land and soils (including radionuclide contamination);
  • intensive agriculture;
  • peat extraction, mining, road and housing construction, as well as deliberate flooding and waterlogging;
  • wetland draining and subsequent peat fires;
  • inappropriate forest management and forest fires; and
  • recreational, industrial and other human activities.

The Republic of Belarus became a full party to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification on November 27, 2001.