Environment

Impact of Land and Soil Degradation

Solutions to land and soil degradation should ideally be aimed to address the main causes contributing to land and soil degradation in a specific geographic region.

BySanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Updated 19 Jun 2022, 6:01 pm

(Photo: IFP)
(Photo: IFP)

 

When the whole world is facing the onslaught of aggressive climate change, land and soil degradation, we cannot remain mere onlookers. The state of Manipur is not sacrosanct. It has its own share of sorrow. The poor state has to suffer directly or indirectly, sooner or later. How many of us are aware of imminent danger of survival in the troubled age? How many of us think globally and act consciously?

The uneasy culture of discounting future marks the beginning of the end. We rely on soil and land to live on, produce our food, and make our clothes, support plant and animal life.

Land degradation is the blanket term usually used to describe a number of land and soil degradation issues. Land and soil degradation can take many forms – up to 36 of degradation types exist. Some of the major types of land degradation include soil erosion, soil contamination (one form of land pollution), desertification, soil acidification, and soil salinity.

Causes for land and soil degradation can differ from country to country (geographic region to region), in urban vs rural areas, and on agricultural vs nonagricultural land.

Some of the major general causes include wind and water weathering of soil, deforestation and clearing of land, intensive or unsustainable agricultural practices, mining, urbanization and human development, carrying of contaminants by air and water, leaching and run off of contaminants, improper management/disposal of waste, natural or severe weather events.

There are also indirect factors that can contribute to land and soil degradation, such as human population growth, which can place more pressure on land and soil resources. Something that is interesting to note is that what is land degradation to some may not be to others. For example, an environmentalist or scientist may look at the environmental aspects of how farmed land is being used, whereas a farmer might look at the economic aspect of what that land can provide once cultivated or used in another way for economic and human benefit.

For agricultural land in particular, the main causes of erosion might be intensive cultivation, overgrazing by livestock, poor management of arable soils, and the clearing of land to convert it to land for farming (although it differs between developed and developing countries – industrial agriculture vs. pasture grazing for example).

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According to some estimates, in non-rural areas – wind and soil erosion might account for over 80 per cent of land degradation, and in rural areas over 70 per cent might be caused by overgrazing and agricultural activities. Estimates indicate that a third to a half of the world’s agricultural land is moderately or seriously degraded. Estimates also indicate that countries like American have lost about half their topsoil since colonial days.

Countries in Sub Saharan Africa might be worst affected by land and soil degradation globally.

Land and soil degradation might impact :(i) Soil fertility and soil health– Land used for agricultural productions and obviously agricultural production itself. Specifically the yield/productivity of arable land used to grow crops. But, also pasture land that has been overgrazed (ii) Agriculture’s contribution to the economy, and the economic contribution of other industries that rely on land and soil (iii) Humans’ health and well-being, in the instance where contaminated soil leaches into water supplies. Poor soil structure can also increase the risks of landslides and other disasters in some places (iv) Other areas of the environment, such as where soil that erodes from a farm causes sedimentation in a river, or where soil contamination on one plot of land leaches and causes water pollution in a nearby water body (v) Wildlife and living organisms that depend on soil, or that are indirectly impacted by issues like soil contamination (via leaching into aquatic environments for example)

There are a number of potential effects of land and soil degradation. Some of the large level effects might be related to land and soil’s: (i)Role in helping regulate aspects of the environment (ii) Role as resources humans use to produce other resources, such as food and fibers, just as two examples. With a growing population, growing demand, and more resource intensive products being consumed, there will need to be more production or better efficiency in the future from land resources, not less (and degraded land and lost topsoil usually leads to less productive soil.One effect of land and soil degradation is lost productivity/yield on agricultural land, and some estimates indicate that productivity may have reduced by 20 per cent to 30 per cent in some regions.

Economically, some estimates put the economical loss that land and soil degradation is responsible for at tens of billions of dollars worldwide annually. Degradation of the world’s arable land and top soil might be a significant issue for the future – some estimates indicate we may only have 60 years’ worth of harvests in top soil left in some countries.

It is not a surprise that the running phenomenon of Increasing Rate of Diminishing Returns in agricultural sector remains age-old challenge in Manipur. This sad scenario is largely brought about by highly degraded and wastelands as well as conversion of agricultural land into land of industrial purpose.

Seventy-nine per cent of Total Geographical Area is reported to be accounted for by degraded lands (1768 thousand ha) in 2010 according to ICAR and NCAS, much higher than 42.6 per cent in 2005 (Ministry of Agriculture, GOI).  About 72 per cent of the state is affected by soil acidity and 6.7 per cent by water erosion. The visible decrease in productivity of food grains from 2241 kg/ha in 2005-06 to 1468 kg/ha in 2015-16 may be traced to high percentage of degraded and wastelands. As a result, 40 per cent of farmers are willing to change their occupation. The rising trend of transfer of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes; especially for “service industry” is not a surprise.

Dispossession is on the rise. The regressive land market operates against the poor. The shortfall of food grains was 1, 58,000 tonnes in 2015-16 even after 65 years of economic planning. We are recklessly mismanaging our ecological interdependence and environmental capital.

The emerging sad scenario of increasing land degradation is bound to aggravate the crushing burden of cultivators whose per capita operated land is only 0.86 acre; much less than basic holding of 1 hectare. The holding is small. The land is also getting degraded. The farmers cannot produce sufficient enough to meet their domestic requirement; forget “marketable surplus”.

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Some types of land degradation are reversible – but, can differ in the amount of time and money required to address them, and some types of land degradation are easier to address than others. There might need to be an assessment of what land degradation problems can practically be fixed (and what ones we can’t), along with the effectiveness of pursuing certain solutions, as well as the expected ROI and benefit.

Solutions to land and soil degradation should ideally be aimed to address the main causes contributing to land and soil degradation in a specific geographic region, or on a specific area of land (as each region and area of land has different causes for its soil and land degradation).

The best solution to land and soil degradation might be to prevent it from happening in the first place, but there can be solutions to restoring already degraded land/soil. As just one example of a possible solution aimed at a specific cause of land degradation, ground cover, cover crops, and building up the top layer of soil (with more organic matter), may all help protect against soil erosion, and particularly wind and water erosion.

Another example – using natural fertilizers (like animal manure, or organic matter), and natural or biological pest control methods, over synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, may be one way of reducing soil contamination. Other ways might be limiting general water, air and waste pollution that can leach into soil and onto lands from the various parts of society. Better sealing landfills might be one specific way to prevent soil contamination at landfill sites.

Already polluted and contaminated soil might have its own set of solutions to consider, such as removing, treating, aerating, and remediation of soil. Funding large scale projects to restore significantly damaged and degraded soil and land is an option for already degraded land.

Although, what is apparent is that each region has different causes of land degradation, along with different local climates, conditions, pre-existing soil profiles and makeup (some soils are difficult to work with, lack organic matter, or are unresponsive), farming practices, local knowledge – factors that lead to addressing land and soil degradation having unique challenges in each area.

Dry land restoration in particular can be uniquely challenging. Some effects of some types of land degradation, such as some types of water and wind erosion, may be largely irreversible – at least over the span of thousands of years (top soil can take millennia to form again naturally).

One of the best ways to prevent land degradation worldwide in the future would be to better map the world’s land and soil (with satellites and other technology), and track the impact of different factors (like deforestation, farming, weather etc.) on this land and soil. An example of how this is currently being done is the Global Land Outlook.

(The views expressed are personal. Writer can be reached to:sjugeshwor7@gmail.com)

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First published:19 Jun 2022, 6:01 pm

Tags:

climate changeenvironmentland degradationsoil degrdation

Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Assistant Professor, JCRE Global College, Babupara, Imphal. The writer can be reached at sjugeshwor7@gmail.com

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