The aim of this study is to understand the impact of desertification on soil health in different areas of Pakistan and the role of microbes and other strategies to overcome desertification.

Desertification is a phenomenon which results from climatic and environmental factors as well as human activities. Desertification results in a plethora of problems such as loss of soil fertility, reduction of land, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. More than 100 countries are affected by this, including Pakistan. One question arises- when will we quash this dogma?

Wardah Rabbani, Nayab Shuja, Nosheen Hafiz and Rida Dawood.

Capital University of Science and Technology

In recent decades, desertification has largely been driven by human interventions posing serious threats to several populations across the globe. Desertification is a self-accelerating process involving a range of inter-connected phenomena many of which are both causative and consequential.

Pakistan’s terrain is vast, with magnificent high mountain ranges such as the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush, many of which have snow-covered peaks and glaciers. Then there are peaks in the north, vast irrigated plains in the south (the Indus Basin), barren deserts and rugged mountainous tracts of plateaus in South West of Balochistan.

Being a predominantly arid to semi-arid country and having an area of 68 million hectares where annual rainfall is rarely more than 300 mm, Pakistan developed its first National Action Programme (NAP) to combat desertification in 2002, in line with the UNCCD objectives. The programme was launched with the financial and technical support of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

 A case study was conducted by a group of researchers on desertification in Pakistan. According to this case study Pakistan depends on agriculture for its needs. The total agricultural area is 79.6 million ha. About 68 million ha of the land area lies in the fragile region receiving less than 300 mm rainfall annually. Approximately 90 percent land area of Pakistan is arid or semi-arid. This area is vulnerable to desertification. D’Odorico and his coworkers wrote an article “Desertification and land degradation”. They highlighted the consequences of desertification on soil.   Desertification leads to soil degradation. Desertification affects soil fertility which results in a reduction in agricultural productivity. Carbon storage in the soil is also reduced due to desertification and global warming is increased. Biodiversity is lost as well due to soil degradation. Desertification results in loss of vegetation cover, accelerated soil erosion, increase in soil salinity and toxicity.  

A researcher published an article “changes in land use and ecosystem services values in Pakistan”. Main areas of Pakistan affected by desertification are mentioned in this article. Watershed in the upper Indus and its tributaries are badly affected due to desertification. The life of Tarbela and Mangla reservoirs is reduced because of accelerated surface erosion. These two dams provide water for 90 percent of the food and fiber production in Pakistan.

An article was published by two researchers on Sustainable land management to combat desertification in Pakistan. Multiple strategies are used to overcome desertification in Pakistan. The local impact of drought can be reduced by growing more plants. Plants help to maintain normal rainfall patterns and also prevent soil erosion. Crop rotation is also helpful in maintaining the nutrient content of the soil. Irrigation improvement is also used to control the issue of desertification and prevents salt accumulation in the soil.  The water holding capacity of soil can be increased by the sprinkler or drip irrigation method. Terracing can be used to prevent soil erosion. As a result of terracing soil fertility increases. These strategies are used in different areas of Pakistan to minimize the problem of desertification and to increase soil fertility. For instance, wind erosion is controlled in the Cholistan desert by planting different trees.

Vast numbers of microorganisms live in a single grain of soil, helping to increase soil fertility and plant life.  The decomposition of organic matter is supported by these microbes. Different microbes decompose organic matter in different ways. Because of their importance in improving soil fertility, they have recently become an important topic of research. Many nutrients develop in soil due to the biological transformation by the action of microorganism. They affect soil functioning by making it fertile. Soil fertility refers to the ability of the soil to provide various nutrients to plants; that is basically the soil’s capacity of producing crops, under specific climatic conditions. However, the main function of the microorganisms present in soil is to make the potential soil fertility accessible. As a result, the atmosphere’s gaseous nitrogen represents a large reservoir of potential fertility. Plants do not have direct access to it. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria, on the other hand, take this gas from the soil and convert it to cell protein. Other microbes attack the protein as the cells die, converting the nitrogenous components to ammonium, which afterwards become a nutrient. Similar to microbial action on plant and animal residues, microbial action on plant and animal residues releases many combined nutrients from their inaccessible types. Likewise, the microbial activity on the residues of plants and animals tends to release various amounts of combined nutrients out of their un-accessible form. In many ways, the microbial activity gives the direct and indirect production of fertility of soil.

The United Nations’ adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development prompted scientists to create data for planning and tracking socioeconomic development and the underlying environmental compartments. Sustainable Development Goal 15 of the 2030 Agenda aims to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”. Effective desertification prevention necessitates both local management and macro-policy interventions that foster ecosystem service sustainability. Since efforts to rehabilitate desertified areas are expensive and Often yield minimal results; it is preferable to concentrate on prevention.

According to Millennium ecosystem assessment desertification prevention relies heavily on integrated land and water management. All measures that protect from soils erosion, salinization, and other forms of soil degradation effectively prevent desertification. Use of locally suitable technology is a key way for inhabitants of dry lands at risk of desertification to work with ecosystem processes rather than against them. Applying a combination of traditional technology with selective transfer of locally acceptable technology is a major way to prevent desertification.

The SDGs help to streamline soil monitoring systems, which can provide the required data and knowledge when combined with new sources of soil information and extensive use of modern technological solutions. For the speedy achievement of the global agenda and to overcome the problems in the implementation of SDGs in the country, capacity building is a must by integrating the trained forces at federal and provincial level. It is also imperative to enhance the capacities of national institutions to achieve SDGs by equipping the executives with latest methods and practices for the timely achievement of SDGs.


·         Aziz, T. (2021). Changes in land use and ecosystem services values in Pakistan, 1950–2050. Environmental Development, 37, 10057.

·         D’Odorico, P., Rosa, L., Bhattachan, A., & Okin, G. S. (2019). Desertification and land degradation. In Dryland ecohydrology (pp. 573-602). Springer, Cham.

·         Mazhar, N., Shirazi, S. A., & Javid, K. (2018). Desertification vulnerability and risk analysis of Southern Punjab Region, Pakistan using geospatial techniques. J Biodivers Environ Sci, 12(6), 273-282.

·         Mazhar, N., & Shirazi, S. A. (2020). The Preliminary Study of Anthropogenic and Natural Drivers of Desertification in Drylands of South Punjab, Pakistan. International Journal of Economic and Environmental Geology, 11(1), 102-107.

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