How to Combat Desertification and Drought from Home

Well, things can get pretty specific when it comes to the UN “world day” arena, and today—17 June—is no different: It’s World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Specifically, 2020’s theme is “Food. Feed. Fibre.” and we are meant to explore links between human consumption and the desertification resulting from them.

While this may seem odd to some, many of us recognise the severity of this situation. In order to help that cause, I thought I might spend a minute explaining what desertification actually is, share some information about Geoff Lawton’s famed Greening the Desert Project, and suggest some ways we might all help with combatting desertification and drought, whether we live in arid climates or not.



What is Desertification?

While the term may seem like the whole world is turning into a desert, that’s not actually what desertification is. Desertification is when arid, semiarid, and dry subhumid ecosystems are constantly degraded, primarily due to overproduction/overconsumption by humans. Drylands account for over 40% of the land on earth and about a third of the earth’s population (2 billion people) live in these arid environments. Over 10% of the arid environments have been severely degraded and need immediate rehabilitation if they are to recover.

While the plants and animals that inhabit drylands are specially adapted for the environments, the ecosystem as a whole is extremely vulnerable. When people use irresponsible agricultural practices, overgraze the land, and deforest what trees are there, the road to recovery is long and slow. The necessary components—water, biomass, and nutrient cycling—just aren’t there for drylands to withstand abuse. In fact, the degraded land increases the likelihood of drought and the potential damage caused by flooding during rare rain events.



Even so, drylands are home to about 44% of the planet’s cultivation and about half of the world’s livestock. This is despite the fact that we should know better by now: We’ve seen firsthand the negative effect through things like the Dust Bowl in the US, soil salination is Australia, and the drying of the Fertile Crescent. In other words, history has already shown what human abuse does in the drylands, so perhaps having a World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought is right on target for something we should all be thinking about again.




The Greening the Desert Project

I’m proud to say that I have in some way (writing) been able to contribute to Geoff Lawton’s Greening the Desert Project in Jordan. Located near the Dead Sea, it is amongst the driest and lowest places on earth. The landscape is harsh, rocky, and bare, but through permaculture principles, international interest, and local volunteers, Geoff has helped to create a model site for how to construct a lush, fertile, highly productive, sustainable home and garden in this climate with limited resources and clever design.



The site has used simple water conservation and harvesting methods (swales and greywater reed beds), natural fertility building strategies (worm farms, chicken tractors, and composting toilets), and speeded successional rehabilitation (bio-diverse food forests) to convert a barren parcel of land into a largely self-sufficient, high-yielding oasis in the desert. In doing so, neighbours have become involved in the project, learned from it, and began to build their own oases in the surrounding villages.



Green Gold, a documentary by ecologist John D. Liu, explores other efforts to thwart desertification around the world. Another fantastic success story, even larger in scale, of re-greening the desert happened at the Loess Plateau in China. Here, a degraded landscape about the size of the Netherlands was nurtured back to being a green and beautiful region. Additionally, Liu visits projects in African, South America, and the Middle East (with Geoff’s Greening the Desert Project).




What You Can Do to Help

The world is full of change right now, much of it potentially making things better. While COVID-19 has been horrible for humanity, it has also given us a moment to reflect, a chance to see how much the planet repairs itself if we cut down on consumption and recognise the need to stabilise our economic and supply systems. The death of George Floyd in Minnesota, as unjust and horrific as it has been to witness, has set in motion a sincere, multilateral pursuit for racial equity in a world that has long been complacent in injustice. The Me Too Movement hasn’t yet disappeared, either. The local food movement. Going green. Permaculture!



To the point, now could also be the time for us to re-imagine those systems that are damaging the drylands of the world. Therein lies this year’s theme: Food. Feed. Fibre. And, the answer is that we have to become more responsible consumers, and we need to become local producers. By choosing what we spend our money on carefully, by building up food systems in our own communities, and by valuing the clothing we wear as something more than fashion, i.e. natural resources with limitation, we can help reduce the pressure on the desert to provide so many of our needs. So, for those wanting to help in combatting desertification and drought, consider doing a few things of the following list:

  1. Eat a more whole-food, plant-based diet
  2. that largely comes from local farmers markets
  3. or, better yet, from growing your own garden
  4. as well as from fruit trees and berries cultivated at home,
  5. and/or raise some of your own meat
  6. or, at the very least, buy locally, ethically, sustainably sourced meat.
  7. Then, reduce food waste by limiting and preserving excesses at home,
  8. not to mention using the scraps from this food to create compost or worm farms.
  9. Clothing should be made to last and worn as such,
  10. and, for that matter, it would be even better to buy it secondhand when possible,
  11. as well as repair small rips
  12. and donate stuff that no longer fits.

If a notable percentage of us around the world could do this, then we’d be well on our way to combating desertification. We’d curb excessive irrigation and salinisation in the drylands. We’d reduce our carbon footprints by eliminating food miles, slowing climate change for a more hopeful future in the drylands. We’d localise our food supply channels so that we wouldn’t be exploiting fragile landscapes afar to grow lawns at home. We’d be appreciating the natural resources (fibre), human energy (manufacturing), and fossil fuels (shipping) used to keep us clothed, about half of which comes at the expense of dryland ecosystems.



It’s important that we remember the things we buy have come from somewhere, and wherever that is has supplied these things to us at a considerable cost to the planet and the local environment, much more so than whatever price we might pay at the supermarket or shopping mall. If we can remember to shop, eat, travel, and live with this in mind, then by default, we will be combatting desertification from our own homes, regardless of where we may be. Plus, wouldn’t life with sincere purpose behind our actions feel better as well?


Happy World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought!





Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful words (as ever) and the valuable links to support.
    Don’t you think it could be time to tackle Australian problems of desertification and salinisation in a global way using Permaculture method ?
    I have been working in Brasil for many years with agroforestry and environmental restoration and always wanted to have a go here in Oz; my home and starting point in Permaculture. Could be the right time now that we have such valuable examples from other regions to help unite some of the techniques here to bring some continental changes “as the winds start to blow in a different direction” and more people want a change ?
    Thanks again
    Regards Pete

  2. What incredible waste. Then they dump it, for the most part, instead of giving it away to people who need food. Our local food chain has some high end store, in high income areas and some for “skum” people (we fall under that one). So we can buy the food the rich reject at 40% off. Sometimes you can’t even figure out what is wrong with the fruits and vegetables. I guess not the right angle. lol The thing is that not many people in our store are even aware of said food, so a group of us, who know, end up with most of it. That also includes meat. I buy it, cook what I need that day and freeze the rest. I’m talking very expensive meat, with who know what can possibly be wrong. Maybe the wrong ration of fat? At least what they don’t sell, the donate to the food shelf.

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