Our early twenty-first century civilization is being squeezed between advancing deserts and rising seas. Measured by the land area that can support human habitation, the earth is shrinking. Mounting population densities, once generated solely by the addition of over 70 million people per year, are now also fueled by the relentless advance of deserts and the rise in sea level.
The newly established trends of expanding deserts and rising seas are both of human origin. The former is primarily the result of overstocking grasslands and overplowing land. Rising seas result from temperature increases set in motion by carbon released from the burning of fossil fuels.
The heavy losses of territory to advancing deserts in China and Nigeria, the most populous countries in Asia and Africa respectively, illustrate the trends for scores of other countries. China is not only losing productive land to deserts, but it is doing so at an accelerating rate.
From 1950 to 1975 China lost an average of 600 square miles of land (1,560 square kilometers) to desert each year. By 2000, nearly 1,400 square miles were going to desert annually.
A U.S. Embassy report entitled "Desert Mergers and Acquisitions" describes satellite images that show two deserts in north-central China expanding and merging to form a single, larger desert overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces. To the west in Xinjiang Province, two even larger deserts -- the Taklimakan and Kumtag -- are also heading for a merger. Further east, the Gobi Desert has marched to within 150 miles (241 kilometers) of Beijing, alarming China's leaders. Chinese scientists report that over the last half-century, some 24,000 villages in northern and western China were abandoned or partly depopulated as they were overrun by drifting sand.
All the countries in central Asia -- Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- are losing land to desertification. Kazakhstan, site of the vast Soviet Virgin Lands Project, has abandoned nearly half of its cropland since 1980.
In Afghanistan, a country with a Canadian-sized population of 31 million, the Registan Desert is migrating westward, encroaching on agricultural areas. A U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) team reports that "up to 100 villages have been submerged by windblown dust and sand." In the country's northwest, sand dunes are moving onto agricultural land, their path cleared by the loss of stabilizing vegetation from firewood gathering and overgrazing. The UNEP team observed sand dunes nearly 50 feet (15 meters) high blocking roads, forcing residents to establish new routes.
Iran, which has 70 million people and 80 million goats and sheep, the latter the source of wool for its fabled rug-making industry, is also losing its battle with the desert. Mohammad Jarian, who heads Iran's Anti-Desertification Organization, reported in 2002 that sand storms had buried 124 villages in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, forcing their abandonment. Drifting sands had covered grazing areas, starving livestock and depriving villagers of their livelihood.