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Statistics on the Annual Increase in the Area of Deserts in Iran

Mazra'eh [farm] News, Analytical & Educational (Monthly)
Aban 1997, No. 8
Pages: 14-17

Summary:About 80 percent of Iran's total area of 164 million hectares have dry and semi-dry conditions. Annually, 600,000 hectares of farmland in Iran are destroyed and 1.65 million hectares of land are added to deserts.

At present, the rate of soil erosion in the country stands at 20 to 30 million tons per year (there are a total of 2.5-3 billion tons of soil in the country) or 200 tons per minute.


According to estimates, Iran's population will have reached 96 million people by the year 2012 provided that birth control programs continue to be implemented successfully. In that case, the agriculture sector will be able to provide food for at most 50 million people. In other words, if the per capita consumption of red and white meat is put at 20 kilograms per year, we will need 1.92 million tons of varying kinds of meat. However, according to statistics, the area of grass land has decreased by 1.5 percent every year since 1981.

If the per capita consumption of grains stands at 140 kilograms per year, by 2012 we will need 13,440,000 tons of grains for our population at that time. This warning becomes more serious when we get to know that the country's deserts are increasing by 8 million hectares per year, the number of huge sand - dunes climbs day by day, and 200 tons of soil are eroded from farms, pastures and forests and taken to seas, lakes and behind dams.

In fact, about 15 tons of soil per hectare are eroded by water every year, which means the loss of 76 kilograms of nitrogen, 24 kilograms of phosphate and eight kilograms of potassium per hectare.

Taking into account the foodstuffs existing in soil, over 7.6 billion dollars worth of foodstuff contained in soil are lost every year.

The geographical location, climatic conditions and unfavorable winds blowing in the country have caused over 80 percent (164 million hectares) of the country's total area of land to have dry and semi dry conditions to an extent that the rate of rainfall in these regions is between 50 to 250 millimeters per year.

Historical evidences and manuscripts left from the past indicate that these regions used to be covered with plants and forests which, due to their excessive exploitation by human beings over centuries, have been devastated and turned into deserts.

A part of the history book Alam Aray-e Abbasi devoted to description of the military expeditions of Safavid King Shah Abbas to Khorassan to suppress the Uzbeks says: "Allahverdi Khan, governor of Fars, got to the camping site of Shah Abbas and his army in Bastam from Shiraz in two weeks, passing through deserts and forests of almond trees..."

A clear example of this is the reduction of forests in northern Iran: from 18 million hectares to 12 million hectares over the past 30 years.

Experts on environmental issues estimate the extent of decertification in Iran at one percent of the country's total area, and on this basis, 1.65 million hectares are added to Iranian deserts every year and a large portion of pastures and farmland are lost.

The total areas of deserts and sand - dunes, according to the latest estimates by the planning department of the Forests and Pastures Organization, are as follows:  

Area of province 
Area of deserts
and sand - dunes
Isfahan and Kashan
Sistan and Balouchestan

In addition to the aforesaid figures, there are 14 million hectares of ruined grass land which raise the total area of deserts in the country to 50 million hectares.

Recently, the head of the Sand Stabilization Bureau of the Natural Resources Department of Khorassan Province announced that the increase in this trend (decertification) was due to recent droughts, the location of Khorassan Province between Qare Qum desert in the north, Lut Markazi and Namak deserts in the south and southwest, and lack of sufficient credits for campaign against the decertification phenomenon.

He adds: "214 - 120 hectares of rocky land and 647,387 hectares of salty land are not covered by any plants at all."

According to the official, 154,374 hectares of land covered with running sands pose serious danger to the cities of Ferdows, Tabas, Sarakhs and Nahbandan. He said immediate measures should be taken to check the motion of sands.

Two thirds of the Khorassan Province was made up of deserts and poor grass land totaling 15 million hectares, he said, adding that no serious measures have been taken to tackle these problems yet (morning daily, Hamshahri, Monday 21/7/76).

Among the major features of the deterioration of ecosystem in dry regions are: appearance of decertification phenomenon and expansion of desert land.

Decertification is a trend that begins with the reduction of the biological production (vegetation) of the land. The culmination of this phenomenon can be found in the motion of running sands, elimination of agricultural lands and pastures, destruction of water supply installations, destruction of communication routes and finally abandoning of the land by men.

The ruining of land includes the destruction of soil in various forms such as erosion by water, erosion by wind, the land becoming saline or swampy, reduction of fertility and chemical destruction of soil.

The importance of desert encroachment upon land and studies on conditions which lead to decertification were reasons behind the holding of a world conference on campaign against decertification in Nairobi, Kenya in 1997.

In the conference, expansion of desert land or decertification was defined as depletion or destruction of biological potential of the earth which will finally lead to prevalence of desert conditions, an aspect of which is the death or degradation of the ecosystem.

It is to be noted that there are various definitions of decertification whose common point is a negative environmental trend referred to as: destruction of ecosystem, depletion of vegetation, reduction of biological potential and so on.

Plowing in a slanting land, improper and short-term fallow, improper drainage and unprincipled cultivation methods inconsistent with ecological conditions rapidly push fertile land towards decertification.

Excessive grazing of cattle, inconsistency between the number of livestock and pastures, incorrect distribution of cattle in grass land, cutting down of trees in forests, use of modern technology for the purpose of economic development, drilling of deep wells, increase in the number of agro-industrial units (cultivation of short-lived summer crops), setting up of water supplies and irrigation installations and building of roads are very effective in the encroachment of deserts on land and expansion of desert land.

Since decertification turns out to be an irreversible phenomenon in many cases which finally lead to the total annihilation of farm lands and their conversion into useless rocky and sandy land, soil loses its fertility power, leading to the appearance of soil erosion by water and wind, water and air pollutions and salinity of land.

With the depletion of soil's fertility power, the economic output of desert regions decline, leaving such consequences as displacement of population and so on.

Parts of losses inflicted by the encroachment of running sand upon land include:

1- Keeping the fertile land which has been buried under sand uncultivated like thousands of hectares of lands in Khouzestan, Kerman, Yazd, Khorassan, Sistan and Balouchestan, northern Iran, Isfahan and so on.

2- The entry of sand into rivers which raises the riverbeds causes millions of cubic meters of water to be wasted annually (considering the shortage of water in the country) ; rivers like the Hirmand, Karoun and Karkheh.

3- Dams, water canals and aqueducts are filled and a large amount of money is needed to dredge and clean them up.

4 - Villages are buried under piles of sand, leading to the immigration of their inhabitants and elimination of all signs of life from the region.

5- Pollution of the environment which poses various health hazards to the inhabitants of the region, and outbreak of various ophthalmic and pulmonary diseases.

According to studies conducted by the Watershed Department of the Construction Jihad Ministry, the annual increase of soil in the country amounts to two billion tons, and of the 100 million hectares of watershed land in Iran, 70 million hectares have an erosion rate of 10 tons per hectare which causes 800,000 hectares of best farm land and pastures to become less profitable every year.

Soil erosion is exhaustion, as well as gradual but steady destruction of soil on the surface of land by erosive factors. Soil erosion and decertification are among the processes which threaten, directly and indirectly, the country's soil and water resources.

According to a report released by U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every year 1.5 billion tons of the 56 million hectare of the country's land will be destroyed by erosion until 1980, and as predicted by the organization, 4.5 billion tons of fertile soil will be wasted by erosion in the next twenty years.

The amount of soil eroded in 1991 was estimated at two billion tons, or 20 to 30 tons of soil per hectare. In the 1991 estimates, domestic experts put the total area of land exposed to erosion at more than 56 million hectares (around 76 million hectares) and therefore, the figure of 20 to 30 tons per hectare is much more than the average figure on erosion in the world.

Given the amount of soil erosion under particular conditions and overall erosion in the country, the amount of farm land destroyed by erosion every year is estimated at 600,000 hectares, and accordingly, 100 million cubic meters of eroded soil in the form of mud and residue enter the reservoirs of big dams and subsequently reduce their water and electricity production capacity.

In view of the progressive trend of land degradation over the past few years, the annual soil erosion is estimated at 2.5 to three billion tons at present.

Based on the FAO report, it is very likely that the area of land with erosion rate of more than 10 tons per year will rise to 78 million hectares, and the overall annual erosion will reach about 4.5 billion tons in the next 10 to 20 years, while the rate of erosion under particular conditions in European countries is less than one ton per hectare annually. Even in Africa, whose famine is blamed on soil erosion by many experts, this rate has been estimated at seven tons per hectare every year.

The figure of 15 to 20 tons per hectare annually is very alarming and even shocking for Iran, drawing a very gloomy and tragic future for the country.

All in all, over 1,000 billion rials in losses are inflicted on the country's economy every year by soil erosion and destructive floods. Despite the significance of the issue from economic point of view, it causes more enormous political and social damage; ranging from immigration of rural people to urban areas and more dependency of the country on foreign states, thus threatening Iran's independence. So let us try together to prevent desert thorns from replacing newly grown green grass.