For those of you who missed the First World Forum on Desertification held at the beginning of this month, EarthAction intern Amber provides an important look at a place suffering from drought and desertification here in the United States.
Desert landscape in Arizona, United States, circa 1972.
What is desertification? It is a process by which fertile soil nutrients are leached due to topsoil erosion from climatic effects and poor agricultural practices. This process transforms arable land into a dry desert unequipped for the growing of crops and other common agricultural practices. The Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States is the largest area of severely desertified land in North America.
She explains, "as we look at that beautiful blue marble photograph of the world, we can say, this land is my land. It feeds us, sustains us, provides us with shelter,and a place for our communities, cultures, and spirits to grow. But much of our land is fragile, and in danger of being unable to support life. Especially at risk, are the dry lands that cover over 40% of the Earth's surface, and are home to more than 2 billion people today."
Since the mid 1970’s the Navajo Nation has experienced an extended period of drought. The people of this semi-arid climate are used to period of little or no rain that would be considered droughts in regions of different climates meaning, “when drought occurs and precipitation falls below the already low averages, the impacts are significant” (NNDWR, 15).
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the on-reservation population is approximately 180,000. As the largest Native American Reservation in the United States, is comprises an area of 27,000 square miles- larger than that of the state of West Virginia. However, the per capita income of its residents is less than half of the U.S. average putting a majority of residents in the Navajo Nation below the poverty line. This dilema not only begs environmental questions but also asks the larger socio-economic questions of why Native Americans have been releated to land which is historically unable to support their lifestyle.
The situation has already gone too far- prompting serious discussion about the sustainability of life on the Navajo Nation- over half the residents of the Navajo Nation live without adequate access to safe drinking water.
Read below for more information on the issue of desertification and the Navajo Nation as well as resources for more information on this pressing topic.
Agricultural practices and overgrazing are thought to be the leading causes of desertification in the U.S as they further accelerate wind and water erosion of topsoil. Snow melt from surrounding peaks was once a major source of water for the Navajo Nation, however, as temperatures increase and winter precipitation decreases, mountain snow-pack decreases and there is less run-off in the spring months. The soil in the region is so incredibly, devastatingly dry that it absorbs the little run-off there is before it can reach streams which would provide water access to communities and homes. Today, there is only one dependable stream within the entire reservation.
Unfortunately, future forecasts do not show the conditions getting any better. Maria Trimachi explains, “The Southwest could get 40 percent drier, and if the area gains another 10 degrees of average temperature, it will lose two inches of rainfall. Storms will be more severe, and invasive species will take over where native grasses once held sway." Currently, the only actions to mitigate this crisis are to reduce the amount of livestock on the reservation and support the Navajo Nation Drought Task Force (NND).
Reducing the amount of livestock has a beneficial impact because it lessens the effect of overgrazing and less water needs to be allocated towards sustaining the livestock. It is estimated that Navajo livestock require 1 to 2 million gallons of water per day (NNDWR, 40). Reducing number of livestock has a huge effect, however, as raising livestock is integral to traditional Navajo culture, the cultural importance tends to exceed its monetary value. Thus, desertification is not only affecting the availability of resources, but posing a threat to developed culture and tradition that predates any "American" traditions or culture we hold dear.
The issue of desertification in the Navajo Nation is not a new concern. In response to the severe effects of the Dustbowl in 1930, the federal government limited the amount of livestock permitted to be raised on the reservation to less than half of their current numbers at that time, in an attempt to reduce overgrazing. The government also issued permits for owning livestock, so only permit holders were allowed to keep livestock and in limited numbers. These permits still exist today yet, they are claimed to be a reason for current problems.
Not only did permits limit the number of livestock permit-holders were allowed to own, they limited where it was permissable to graze livestock. This limited the former mobility of Navajo ranchers to move their livestock in response to drought, and instead forced ranchers to keep their livestock grazing the same fields year after year. This quickly depleted the fields’ ability to reproduce and only furthered overgrazing. In retrospect, Navajo people have traditionally been considered stewards of the land. Their traditional grazing system was already sensitive to the carrying capacities of the fields; livestock populations and locations fluctuated in response to changes of the land and its reproductive capabilities . Perhaps, if Navajo livestock practices had not been regulated, overgrazing would have naturally resolved itself and would not be as significant of an issue as it is today.
Fortunately, the situation is beginning to look up for the Navajo Nation. After years of legal negotiations, with the help of veteran Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, Navajo leaders and their lawyers are close to closing on a legal settlement to draw millions of gallons of water for the reservation from the Little Colorado River. This would greatly decrease the cost of water and improve access to public water for Navajo Nation residents, but would do very little in terms of reversing or slowing down desertification.
For Further Reading/Sources
Water rights and Desertification in the Navajo Nation from Circle of Blue, working to bring attention to the global water crisis.
An interesting view on the history of Native Americans and natural resouce conflicts in the United States by David R. Lewis.
Read the Navajo Nation Drought Contingency Plan 2003. published by the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources
Maria Trimachi provides an interesting explaination of desertification at How Stuff Works.com.
Cindy Yurth's, The Longest Drought, published in 2011 in the Navajo Times.