One of the topics looked at in GCSE Geography is the degradation of dryland - also know as desertification. This quiz looks at the causes of, and some possible solutions to, desertification.

Desertification is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems caused by variations in climate and human activities. Drylands occupy nearly half the planet's land area, and in 2000 were home to around one-third of the Earth’s population.

Drylands are, as the name suggests, areas where water is scarce. In the past, nomadic lifestyles and low levels of agriculture meant that the risk of over cultivation was relatively low. But the marginal conditions in drylands mean that climate change and human pressures can easily tip the balance and destroy their fragile ecosystems, leaving nothing but bare soils behind. Up to 20% of the world’s drylands have already been degraded, but the facts are that these changes are affecting the world’s poorest populations.

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That these populations are the poorest, means that they rely on the local ecosystem more than the inhabitants of developed nations. Food, fuel, construction materials, grazing for livestock - all come from the local environment. As the climate fluctuates the desert expands, forcing people to cultivate further marginal land and leading to more land degradation.

A great case study to learn for use in essays and exams is that of the Masai tribes of the Kenyan Serengeti. Originally nomadic farmers, their traditional system of moving from one area to another allowed the land to recover, before commercial farmers moved in to convert the premium lands to commercial agriculture. When the Serengeti National Park was created the Masai and their herds were excluded. These two factors, along with expanding populations, forced the Masai on to marginal lands. Private ownership of land now limits the Masai’s ability to move, and so leads to overgrazing on these marginal lands. This overgrazing has led to desertification.

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  1. Which of the following is a physical cause of desertification?
    Climate change is a leading cause of desertification, along with unsustainable land usage
  2. How can plant science help increase the amount of vegetation in areas and so slow, or even reverse desertification?
    Genetically modified crops can help in these situations, as can moving crops from a different area, such as moving early maturing millet from southern to northern Mali. Improving the soil using fertilisers such as animal dung also helps
  3. Which of the following is a disadvantage of afforestation?
    The trees may die due to lack of water. It could be argued that funding could be better spent on more effective projects
  4. Which of the following is a human cause of desertification?
    Whilst climate change is influenced by human activity, it is considered a natural cause of desertification rather than a human one
  5. Which of the following is not a possible strategy to reduce desertification?
    The creation of the Serengiti National Park has lead to the overgrazing of marginal lands
  6. Which of the following is not a way that planting trees will help reduce desertification?
    Charity programmes, such as that of the Green Cross in Burkina Faso, educate local populations on the use of plant nurseries and fuel saving stoves
  7. In areas under threat from desertification, people are forced to use marginal lands. How are these marginal lands defined?
    Lands that are considered marginal for crops may be suitable for animal grazing in some circumstances, or for different farming methods
  8. How can rainfall be made more reliable in areas under threat from desertification?
    Some people believe that messing with the atmosphere in this high-tech way may have as yet unknown impacts
  9. Dams have been built on a number of major rivers to increase the amount of water available for drinking and agriculture. How can artificial irrigation increase desertification?
    Salinisation is an increase in levels of salt in the soil as minerals are drawn up to the surface by water evaporation
  10. Magic stones are a project in which piles of stones are placed across slopes. How do these help reduce desertification?
    These piles of stones are laid across a slope and trap surface water runoff, so reducing soil erosion

Author: Ruth M

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