Bare trees in a desert with some greenery in the background.

Desertification and drought

Drought and desertification are closely related phenomena. Persisting over months or years, drought can affect large areas and may have serious environmental, social and economic impacts. While drought is a natural phenomenon, whose impacts can be exacerbated by human activities that are not adapted to the local climate, land degradation is the process of turning fertile land into less or non-productive land. In extreme cases in drylands this is called desertification. Land degradation and desertification are complex phenomena driven by un-adapted human activity in combination with land and climatic constraints. Inappropriate land use, such as monocultures, and unsustainable land management practices, such as deforestation, unsuitable agricultural practices and  overexploitation of water resources), can cause land degradation that can be further aggravated by drought.

Climate change is expected to increase frequency, duration and severity of droughts in many parts of the world. Such changing conditions add to already stressing land use globally and especially in the world’s fragile drylands. This may lead to an accelerated rate of land degradation and desertification which, in turn, is likely to increase poverty.

The JRC studies different aspects of these coupled human-environmental phenomena by monitoring and assessing desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) from regional to global scales.

The JRC’s research on drought and desertification is relevant for the implementation of international conventions such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and for the development of pro-active risk management at national and regional scales. It futher contributes to improved water and food security and to the provision of assistance to developing countries.

Euronews Futuris series: Drought alert in Africa


World Atlas of Desertification

As the world develops economically and its population increases, pressure on land resources is increasing. Poor land management leads to land degradation, which reduces its capacity to carry out basic services, such as food production, its economic value, and its biological and cultural diversity. Desertification, an extreme form of land degradation, is a global phenomenon that is influenced by and has an impact on climate change and biodiversity loss. Land degradation causes a decline in land productivity and is therefore likely to lead to increased levels of poverty. 

The JRC develops integrated methodologies and indicators for assessing and mapping DLDD, which are being used to compile the new World Atlas of Desertification. This atlas, which is coordinated by the JRC and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), will illustrate a holistic concept for assessment and monitoring of DLDD and will be a means of bringing scientific advancements into the policy arena for better decision making and mitigation of land degradation and desertification.

European Drought Observatory

The JRC developed and manages the European Drought Observatory (EDO), which provides timely and consistent information on droughts in Europe. In EDO the JRC compiles a series of drought indicators for the entire European continent. These indicators are based on meteorological and satellite data, as well as on hydrological simulation models, thus allowing mapping and tracing the evolution of ongoing droughts. The continental indicators are complemented with drought indicators prepared by national, regional or local organizations for their area of competence in order to provide more detailed information needed for management purposes.

As droughts affect the entire water cycle (e.g. precipitation, evaporation, soil moisture, streamflow and groundwater resources) and have direct impacts on the vegetation cover, all of these components need to be carefully monitored. Based on detailed analyses of air temperature, rainfall anomalies, soil moisture conditions and vegetation water stress, drought experts at the JRC assess the impacts of current and forecasted drought situations.The EDO provides the fundamental data and tools for an analysis of drought situations in Europe as well as concise data analyses, published as Drought News in the case of serious droughts.

The possibilities to forecast or predict droughts over temporal scales from a few days to seasons are important in order to provide the necessary information for pro-active risk management. 

Water and Food Security

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 815 million people worldwide are chronically food-insecure, while a further 5-10% of the population is at risk of “acute” food insecurity by natural and manmade crises.

The dramatic increase in population puts additional stress on global food security, highlighting a need for comprehensive, systematic and accurate global agricultural monitoring activities. The European Union plays a leading role in the international donor community with a yearly contribution of 500 million Euro.

The JRC’s tools are used for crop monitoring and yield forecasting, using near-real-time Earth observation and meteorological data. The JRC has developed specific applications to extract relevant indicators, detect anomalies and produce early warning bulletins throughout the crop season, anticipating hotspots for food insecurity risks, and making production forecasts one month before the harvest.

More information:

Agricultural monitoring

Crop yield forecasting

ACP Observatory

The JRC carries out extensive work in support of EU development policies in the ACP (Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific) countries. It produces scientific reference material, delivers warning systems about floods, fires and droughts, provides added-value information to decision-makers, and gives technical advice on development projects, capacity-building, and networking in Europe and Africa.

To bring together the scientific information accumulated over the past 30 years over the African, Caribbean and Pacific regions, the JRC has set up an ACP Observatory, which covers topics such as soil, biodiversity, forests, food security, rural development, rangelands, marine and coastal ecosystems, water management, land degradation and desertification, natural hazards (floods, fires), civil security and spatial data infrastructure. 

In summary, the JRC delivers integrated assessments of water deficits and their wide-ranging impacts in support of several EU policies, such as agriculture, industry, energy, trade, environment and development cooperation. These activities are directly linked to the EU Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources, which is stronglyly related to the Europe 2020 Strategy and to the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe.

JRC Institutes