Desertification Is Devouring India. But There's Hope in the Dunes

An estimate last year found that land degradation alone cost India over 2 percent of its gross domestic product.

Desertification Is Devouring India. But There's Hope in the Dunes

By Rishika Pardikar


India’s most arid state is showing the way to others on newly desertified lands.

By Rishika Pardikar

In monsoon season, farmers in Maharashtra’s Dhule district are torn between hoping for a downpour and dreading it. The barren area needs water — but as the already dry ground becomes increasingly degraded, rainwater could erode the shallow topsoil that remains and destroy the few plants still able to grow there.

Almost 45 percent of Maharashtra’s land area is turning into a desert, as is a huge chunk of India. Land degradation — the process by which land loses its productivity and ability to support plant life — is normally caused by climate change, human activity or a combination of the two. When land in dry areas degrades, that’s desertification — and desertification’s pace has intensified. It’s now happening at as much as 35 times the historical rate, according to the United Nations.

Approximately 25 percent of India’s land area is undergoing desertification.

That’s more than 204 million acres, concentrated in the country’s west. An estimate last year found that land degradation alone cost India over 2 percent of its gross domestic product. According to the U.N., 50 million people across the world are at risk of being displaced in the next decade due to desertification. According to a special report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in August, desertification has affected the living area of approximately 500 million people since the 1980s.

In September, the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification held its biennial meeting in Noida, India, where world leaders and international organizations discussed how to combat desertification, land degradation and drought. At that meeting, members advocated restoring degraded lands via a global movement.

The most immediate answers, though, may lie in traditional knowledge. In India, some struggling with the impact of desertification are looking to the Thar Desert between India and Pakistan. With 133 residents per square mile, it’s the most populous desert in the world. Temperatures can hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds gust at more than 35 miles per hour. The driest parts of the region receive less than 6 inches of rain per year.

Located on the edge of the desert is the village of Laporiya, home to 2,500 people who support themselves via a mix of farming and livestock herding. Over the past three decades, Laporiya has become renowned for rainwater harvesting practices that allow villagers to survive on just 10 to 20 inches of rainwater a year.

“During 1977, there were severe droughts, and this is when we started holding discussions with people in the area. There were about 20 of us, and as the first step, we began restoring the ponds in the area,” says Laxman Singh, head of the Gram Vikas Navyuvak Mandal Laporiya, a nongovernmental organization focused on natural resource management in Rajasthan’s rural communities since the 1980s.

The community restored old ponds and built new ones by identifying land supported by underground stones and digging catchment areas. The ponds were then categorized according to use: Two were for groundwater recharge, one was for irrigating fields. Villagers built canals and embankments to capture the meager rainfall and channel it into the ponds. In some cases, trees were planted near the ponds to support the soil and also to provide shade for the villagers.

Rectangular plots of lands called chaukas store water during monsoon season. Approximately 200 feet by 430 feet, the chaukas are arranged in a zigzag pattern across a section of common land.


Graphical representation of the chauka system.

Source Making Water Everybody’s Business by Centre of Science and Environment

Chaukas are especially important for capturing runoff and storing it for usage during dry periods.

“During monsoons, the ponds filled up, the local environment improved because groundwater was getting recharged and people could also irrigate their fields,” Singh says. 

Following the success of the chauka system in Laporiya, 8,000 people across 58 nearby villages implemented similar systems.

“Traditionally, water was an issue that communities would solve by themselves,” says Maulik Sisodia, executive director of Tarun Bharat Sangh, an organization that works to empower self-governance models at the local level across villages in India. “Rainwater conservation is the best solution for climate change adaption and mitigation.”


When filled to the brim after south-west monsoons, this pond can irrigate about 560 acres of agricultural land.

Source Rishika Pardikar

It’s not just about adaptation: Such techniques could potentially reverse land degradation. Experts say the restoration of degraded land is most dependent on conserving water and reforesting areas where appropriate. While Rajasthan has the highest percentage of land degradation of any Indian state, it was also one of just four states to reduce the percentage of land affected between 2003 and 2013.

“These are time-tested, community-driven solutions,” Sisodia says, “which fulfill the needs of both the community and the earth.”