Deserts and desertification: Challenges but also opportunities

Uriel Safriel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


The UN decision to couple 'deserts' and 'desertification' in addressing the year 2006 (as well as the following decade) as 'Year (or Decade) of Deserts and Desertification' sends several wrong messages regarding both the nature of deserts as natural ecosystems and of desertification as a human-driven process that reduces the provision of ecosystem services of soil conservation and of biological productivity, specifically in non-desert areas, more than in desert ones. A new approach to addressing sustainable development in the drylands was presented in an international conference that took place at the end of the 'International Year' and hosted by the Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research in Sede Boqer, Israel. This approach (a) qualifies drylands as ecosystems whose biological productivity is constrained by water and hence it is naturally low compared to that of most other terrestrial ecosystems; (b) qualifies desertification as a further persistent reduction of productivity in the drylands brought about mainly through human impact mostly driven by population increase; (c) observes that within the drylands natural productivity linearly declines with aridity, and suggests that sensitivity to impact linearly increases with aridity; (d) further suggests that population density generates the impact, and observes that population density in drylands increases exponentially as aridity declines; and (e) suggests that the product of the linear sensitivity and the exponential impact generates a desertification peak at the transition between non-desert drylands (where desertification and poverty are high) and the desert drylands (where both are very low). Given these, the Sede Boqer approach suggests that (a) rather than be construed as an adversity, desert drylands offer opportunities to their inhabitants since their environmental conditions are conducive for livelihoods mostly independent of the desert's very low productivity; this includes solar energy development and tourism, but also (counterintuitively!) desert aquaculture; (b) non-desert drylands, on the other hand, face a serious challenge of becoming desertified, mainly due to increasing population; and (c) global climate change further increases the success of alternative livelihoods in deserts, may create opportunities in some of the non-desert drylands too, but amplifies the challenges facing nondesert drylands people. Caution and prudence are required to meet these challenges, especially since currently socio-political measures are in shorter supply than technological fixes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)353-366
Number of pages14
JournalLand Degradation and Development
Issue number4
StatePublished - 20 Aug 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Development
  • General Environmental Science
  • Soil Science


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