In Kenya, though, the damage is dire.
“The soil never used to be this sandy when I was young,” said Maliyan Lekopir, 50, a cattle and goat farmer in the Samburu region, kicking dirt up in the air.
“This place used to be so beautiful. Giraffes, zebras, gazelle used to graze next to our goats. Now all the animals are gone and the streams have dried up.”
Indeed the land is desiccated in the country, where prolonged droughts have become more common since 2000, with the current one the worst in four decades.
More than 60% of the country’s total land is deemed highly degraded, and more than 27% very highly degraded, according to Kenya’s environment ministry, taking into account factors such as vegetation cover and its ability to resist erosion. This is despite efforts by green groups encourage farmers to use no-till or minimum-till agriculture and employ agroforestry.
None of the children playing in Lekopir’s village in northern Kenya remember a real rainy season. They’ve grown used to raising camels and dodging the growing web of dusty gullies, none of which were present during Lekopir’s youth.
The drought has made the water sources this village relies on increasingly stagnant, making kids sicker, Lekopir said. To keep the remaining cattle and goats alive, herders often have to walk hundreds of miles in search of water or pasture.
Grass has disappeared from much of Kenya’s vast pastures, leaving the land prone to future compaction or erosion, said soil scientist Winowiecki at CIFOR-ICRAF.
So much soil has eroded in Kenya, India and many other places around the world that the ground’s seed bank – grass seeds ready to sprout once rain falls – has also been depleted, meaning restoring some areas would require manually reseeding it, said Tor-Gunnar Vagen, CIFOR-ICRAF’s principal scientist.
“The whole system is at a tipping point. Climate change is just accelerating all of that.”