Desertification | Rumania

“We are losing fertile land every year”

Why are deserts increasing worldwide? An interview with the Romanian meteorologist Roxana Bojariu

Mrs Bojariu, what does desertification mean? 

An area of land is considered desertified when the soil is damaged and can no longer fulfil its normal functions. Nothing grows on such soil, it hardly stores any carbon and can no longer regenerate itself to become fertile again. It becomes desertified. According to UN figures, 120,000 square kilometres are affected worldwide every year.

Why is that? 

Desertification is a very complex phenomenon, but humans undoubtedly play a major role; on the one hand, indirectly, through man-made climate change, and on the other, through interference with nature, for example, by leaching soils through monocultures and excessive use of pesticides, overgrazing fields, cutting down forests and over-exploiting natural water resources. 

In most cases, several things come together: temperatures are rising, rainfall is changing, there are more drought days, the risk of forest fires is increasing and shade-providing trees are being cut down. At the same time, the soil is being farmed in a less sustainable way.

Which regions are particularly affected? 

From a global perspective, the arid and semi-arid regions of the tropics are severely affected. But desert-like areas are also spreading in Europe and North America - especially where intensive agricultural use and a drier climate come together. In south-west Europe, in Greece and Cyprus, entire areas have already been devastated, as well as in Bulgaria and here in Romania. Romania is also a good example of the human influence on desertification.

In what way? 

Romania has a temperate continental climate. Large parts of the country have excellent, fertile soils. Nevertheless, Romania is now one of the European countries with the fastest growing desert areas. Thousands of hectares of fertile land are lost every year. Our forecasts at the National Meteorological Administration of Romania indicate that, in the worst-case scenario, around 30 percent of the entire country and 40 per cent of agricultural land will become desert if no active measures are taken to prevent it. 

The average temperature in Romania has already risen by 1.1 degrees since the beginning of the 20th century. But this alone would not have been enough to cause the desertification of the country. Decades of mismanagement have contributed to desertification. During the communist-era planned economy under Nicolae Ceaușescu, 26 per cent of Romania's waters were drained and converted into arable land, even though the soil was not suitable.

Deforestation continued even after the Romanian revolution in 1989. In conjunction with rising temperatures, this has led to the region of southern Oltenia being dubbed the "Romanian Sahara".

How can this development be stopped? 

It’s not enough to plant a few trees or increase irrigation. The entire cultivation must become sustainable. In Romania, for example, we are planting acacia tree belts, so-called "green barriers". They ensure that rainwater can be kept in the ground for longer and that the wind does not carry away the last bit of soil. 

Wetlands along the Danube, which were drained decades ago for agricultural use, are now being re-naturalised. They act as buffer zones and reduce the impact of droughts and floods. Agroforestry methods are also proving helpful. This involves planting bushes that provide shade for smaller crops. 

Such mixed cultivation is ecologically much more favourable than a monoculture. At the same time, the population must also adapt to the new conditions by cultivating plants such as peanuts, olives or kiwis, which also grow on sandy soils. We often have to fight against deep-seated convictions. Achieving ever higher yields with ever more pesticides only works for a limited time. Everyone benefits from more sustainable cultivation - not immediately, but in the long term.

Interview by Gundula Haage