EarthTalk: Can you explain what “desertification”
is and why it is an important environmental issue?
-- Jay Harris, Nashville, TN
is a global problem caused in large part by overpopulation,
water scarcity (now exacerbated by climate change)
and poor land use planning and agricultural practices.
And the U.S. is not immune, as the severe dust storms
of the 1930s (known as the Dust Bowl) made clear.
Pictured: A farmer and two boys run for shelter during
a dust storm in Oklahoma in 1936.
© Arthur Rothstein, courtesy Wikipedia
is the degradation of land in already dry parts of the globe
that results from various factors, including natural climate
changes as well as human activity. As the name connotes
it is the expansion of desert-like conditions which render
useless land that was once biologically and/or economically
productive. According to the United Nations’ Convention
to Combat Desertification, the phenomenon occurs in “drylands”
(arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas) on all continents
except Antarctica and affects the livelihoods of millions
of people, including a large proportion of the world’s
constitute about 40 percent of the world’s total land
area, and are home to some two billion people—a third
of human population. Water scarcity in existing drylands
makes it difficult for plants, animals and humans to thrive
there; desertification makes it impossible, forcing those
affected to flee to more hospitable lands, whether they
are welcome or not. The United Nations estimates that 10-20
percent of the world’s drylands are already degraded
to the point where desertification is an imminent threat.
global warming—and the resulting intensification of
fresh water scarcity—is the most serious factor in
converting drylands into deserts, population pressure and
lack of proper land use planning only serve to make matters
worse. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the regions most vulnerable
to desertification, severe droughts already lead to major
food and health crises once every three decades or so on
average; environmentalists and planners worry that human-induced
warming and other factors will increase the frequency of
such debilitating droughts and lead to even more problems
with desertification there. The African Union is working
to muster international support for the creation of a “Green
Wall”—a forested green belt—to help hold
back the Sahara desert.
governments are also taking steps to keep desertification
in check. China is working to create a 2,800-mile forest
belt that will not only block the fast advancing sands of
the Gobi desert but serve as a “carbon sink,”
as well, to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. And Algerian
leaders are optimistic that the recent creation of a 600,000
acre national park will head off a looming desertification
is also a problem right here in the United States, mostly
a result of overgrazing by farm animals and poorly designed
irrigation schemes across especially vulnerable parts of
Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Some 40 percent of the continental
U.S. is dry enough to be at risk for desertification.
point to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as proof positive of
America’s susceptibility to such problems. Lessons
learned then led to the creation of the Soil Conservation
Service—now called the Natural Resources Conservation
Service—to teach farmers and other landowners agricultural
practices that reduce soil loss and maintain biological
diversity around agricultural operations. In spite of such
efforts, desertification still plagues parts of the U.S.
today. The hope today is that global warming won’t
tip us to the point where have to learn some hard lessons
all over again.
Convention to Combat Desertification; African
Resources Conservation Service.
EarthTalk: What’s up with dishwasher
detergents of late? They’re clearly not working as
well. I hope whatever was done is helping the environment
because it’s not helping my dishes.
-- Sally P., Everett, WA
U.S. states now severely limit the amount of phosphates
allowed in automatic dishwasher detergents due to
their negative impacts on wastewater systems, water
bodies and human health. While some do not clean as
well as a result, Consumer Reports tested 24 leading
low-phosphate offerings and gave highest marks to
brands by Cascade, Finish, Method and Ecover (pictured
was that in July 2010 a significant reduction in the amount
of phosphates allowed in automatic dishwasher detergent
went into effect in Washington State. Similar regulations
were implemented in 14 other states (Illinois, Indiana,
Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New
Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia,
and Wisconsin) for 2009 before Oregon and Washington added
their names to the list earlier this year. Previously phosphates
could constitute up to 8.7 percent of dishwasher detergent;
now the new regulations limit them to 0.5 percent.
The main problem
with phosphates, which also come from agricultural and landscaping
activities, is that they get into natural water bodies and
act as fertilizer, accelerating plant and algae growth.
When the plants and algae die, a feeding frenzy of bacteria
consume all the oxygen dissolved in the water, creating
an environment inhospitable to fish and other aquatic life.
These oxygen-devoid “dead zones” can occur in
freshwater or in the ocean. In fact, two of the world’s
largest dead zones are in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of
Mexico, the result of fertilizers running off of farmland.
Besides phosphates’ negative effect on water bodies,
their presence in the environment can also be harmful to
terrestrial wildlife and can trigger skin and eye irritation
and allergies, among other ill effects, in humans.
and others supportive of the reduction in phosphates claim
that the new regulations will spare wastewater treatment
systems from dealing with 10-12 percent of the phosphates
previously encountered. Wastewater treatment managers in
Spokane, Washington, for example, found that a local year-old
ban on phosphates in dishwashing detergent there saved them
from dealing with upwards of 180 pounds of phosphates—or
about 10 percent of the total load—each and every
day at municipal wastewater treatment facilities—saving
not only money but also the other chemicals used to treat
Given the shift
in so many states, many manufacturers have reformulated
their entire product lines for markets across the country,
so even if you don’t live in one of the affected states
you might be getting dishwashing detergent with a lot less
phosphorous as well. Consumer Reports tested 24 of the leading
low-phosphate dishwasher detergents to see which ones got
dishes cleanest. The top finishers were Cascade Complete
All in 1 pacs (at a cost of 28 cents per load), Ecover tablets
(27 cents), Finish Powerball Tabs tablets (22 cents), and
Method Smarty Dish tablets (21 cents), but other brands
and formulations also performed adequately if used properly.
also provides tips on optimizing the performance of your
dishwasher and dishwashing detergent no matter which brand
you use. For starters, load large items at the sides and
back of the dishwasher so they don’t block water and
detergent from reaching other dishes. And place the dirtier
side of dishes towards the center of the machine to provide
more exposure to the sprayer. Also, try to prevent dishes
and utensils from nesting within one another so that the
water can reach all surfaces.
SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM