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Protecting Soils

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Protecting Soils

Man’s relationship with soil is eternal. Health, fertility and stability of soil are considered essential elements for the existence of life on planet Earth. But by the unwise use of this nucleus of his survival, man is pushing it towards degradation. However, keeping in view the criticality of soil to our lives and with an avowed objective to focus attention on the importance of healthy soil and to advocate for the sustainable management of soil resources, the world observes World Soil Day (WSD) annually on December 05. Efforts to get a day dedicated to soil started with a recommendation by the International Union of Soil Sciences (in 2002). Under the leadership of the Kingdom of Thailand and within the framework of the Global Soil Partnership, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) supported the formal establishment of WSD as a global awareness-raising mechanism. The FAO Conference unanimously endorsed WSD in June 2013 and requested its official adoption at the 68th UN General Assembly. In December 2013, the UN General Assembly responded by designating 05 December 2014 as the first official World Soil Day.
In order to meet the growing demand for food, amidst an ever-increasing population, as well as to effectively tackle the gargantuan climate change challenge, sustainable soil management, which means maintaining those characteristics that maintain the fertility of the soil, – the ability of soil to sustain plant growth by providing essential plant nutrients and favourable chemical, physical, and biological properties – and its ecological properties, is of pivotal importance. Its significance can be gauged from the fact that soil supplies food-producing plants with the essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support they need to grow and thrive. They also serve as a buffer to protect delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature.
Moreover, healthy soil helps maintain a diverse community of organisms that are vital to keeping our ecosystems functioning. As scientists say that one teaspoon of soil contains more living organisms than there are people in the world. Without this “biological diversity,” there would be no terrestrial life on Earth.
Soils are also one of the most important global reservoirs of biodiversity; it is estimated that 25–30% of all species on Earth live in soils for all or part of their lives. Healthy soil also contributes to mitigating climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content.
Although soil is only a few centimetres, on average, of the earth’s surface, it is estimated that 95% of our food is, directly or indirectly, produced on it. Healthy soils are the foundation of the food system. Our soils are the basis for agriculture and the medium in which nearly all food-producing plants grow. Healthy soils produce healthy crops that, in turn, nourish people and animals. Indeed, soil quality is directly linked to food quality and quantity.
On Earth, there are 92 naturally occurring chemical elements, 18 are essential to plants and 15 of them are supplied by soils. However, at present, the deficiency of soil nutrients has become a major cause of soil degradation that threatens nutrition and is recognized as one of the most critical challenges for global food security and sustainability. During the last 70 years, the levels of vitamins and nutrients in the world’s available food have declined drastically. Soil health and fertility have a direct impact on the availability of nutrients in food crops because the deficiency of any one of the 15 nutrients required for plant growth can limit crop production while, on the other hand, the consumption of low-nutritional food leads to malnutrition in humans and animals. And, this chronic deficiency of micronutrients from soil and crops causes serious and hidden health problems; it affects the functioning of the brain and muscles, immune system, gene development and reproductive system; changes the structure of enzymes, DNA and RNA and causes protein deficiency. Moreover, without adequate levels of micronutrients, health problems like stunting, birth defects and blindness become a greater risk. This is why hidden hunger affects more than 2 billion people worldwide.
Soil plays a crucial role in nature’s cycles, including the nutrient cycle, which involves how much soil organic matter — i.e. carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus — is taken up and stored in the soil. But, when the natural nutrient cycle is not optimized, fertilizers need to be added to the soil. However, proper use and management of fertilizers is needed to prevent underuse, misuse and overuse of fertilizers. Experts suggest six steps to prevent and restore soil nutrient imbalances:

1. Crop diversification and cultivation of pulses;
2. Soil nutrient measurement and mapping;
3. Judicious use of fertilizers;
4. Adequate use of micronutrients;
5. Long-term sustainable soil management; and
6. Enhancement of technical support to farmers.
Soil is among nature’s most complex ecosystems; containing countless organisms that interact and cooperate in other systems that make all life possible. Advances in agricultural technology over the past 50 years have increased food production. But, sometimes, it has negative effects on soil and the environment. In many countries, the overproduction of crops has degraded soils, threatening the ability of these areas to sustain production in the future.

An important thing to be noted here is that it may take 1000 years to build one centimetre of soil, but every year we lose soil roughly equivalent to about 50,000 sq km – almost the size of Costa Rica – according to the World Food and Agriculture Organization. It means we are losing soil equivalent to one soccer pitch every five seconds. Every hour in Europe, the equivalent of 11 hectares of soil is being eaten up by sprawling cities. According to another estimate, around 35 billion tons of soil is lost and mobilized every year due to the phenomenon of soil erosion. Of this, about 12 billion tons of agricultural topsoil and associated nutrients are discharged into streams, rivers and lakes each year. Considering this situation, FAO experts warned that if soil erosion continues at its current pace, the world could run out of topsoil – the uppermost layer of soil and it contains organic matter and microorganisms which are both critical for plant life – in 60 years.
As per a research article Impact Assessment of Land Cover and Land Use Changes on Soil Erosion Changes (2005-2015) in Pakistan, a seminal work by four Pakistani experts, Hammad Gilani, Adeel Ahmad, Isma Younes and Sawaid Abbas, published in Land Degradation & Development Journal, at the national scale, an estimated soil erosion of 1.79 ± 11.52 ton ha-1 yr-1 in 2005, which increased to 2.47 ± 18.14 ton ha-1 yr-1 in 2015. During this 10-year period, the ratio of soil erosion in the country increased by 38% while the highest increase was recorded in Islamabad at 104 percent. Second on this list is Azad Jammu and Kashmir where the increase was 94 percent, followed by Punjab at 54.5 percent. Balochistan is the only province where improvement was noted; in 2005, the ratio of soil erosion in the province was 0.28 tons per hectare per year, which decreased to 0.26 tons per hectare per year in 2015.
If analyze the statistics only in the context of 2015, the highest soil erosion in the country in the said year was recorded in Azad Jammu and Kashmir which was 28.03 tons per hectare per year. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was in second place where this was 12.84 tons per hectare per year. Gilgit-Baltistan was third with 9.06 tonnes per hectare per annum. In the said year, the lowest soil erosion was recorded in Sindh where this was at the rate of 0.03 tons per hectare per year.
As per the article “Desertification in Pakistan, Challenges and Opportunities,” published by Zaheer Ud Din Babur, Arshad Ali and Muhammad Naseem Baig in the Journal of Environmental Treatment Techniques, “Around 40 million tonnes of soil are brought into the Indus basin each year.” The silt flowing from the catchment areas of the rivers pollutes the rivers and fills the country’s dams with silt, reducing their water storage capacity. And, thus, the water supply system cannot function optimally.
The growing soil erosion is a silent and invisible process that has become a major source of agricultural and environmental problems for experts and scientists around the world. Geologists assert that there is a strong bond between the Earth’s resources and the natural environment, and when human activities disturb the natural environment, land degradation is inevitable. For example, cutting down trees deprives the Earth of its ability to cope with the threat of gradual wind and water erosion and keep the temperature under control. Cultivation of crops beyond the capacity of the land and indiscriminate use of pesticides gradually deplete the soil’s nutrients; thus, reducing its productivity and eventually making it barren. In this way, alluvial land turns into a desert within a few years. Owing to a lack of maintenance of irrigation systems and the use of improper methods for that, fertile agricultural land becomes vulnerable to soil erosion as the groundwater level rises, making the land unfit for agriculture.
On the other hand, when this water reaches the surface of the earth, it either gets accumulated in the form of ponds or raises the water table of the area, hampering the drainage capacity. When this water evaporates, a thick layer of salt that remains on the ground can, afterward, turn the area into a dusty plain. Similarly, overgrazing of animals in natural pastures and the removal of topsoil by their hooves, clearing of land for providing residential purposes, i.e. the removal of trees and vegetation, and stray birds and destruction of natural habitats; all these human activities are pushing the land towards rapid degradation and consequently, healthy and fertile soil is getting degraded.
Soil provides sustenance to many ecosystem services that are fundamental to human health and life on Earth. But despite its important role, it has been a victim of chronic neglect. Population growth, changes in consumption patterns and changes associated with eating behaviours are increasing pressure on soil resources and for it, there is an urgent need to grow more food on smaller tracts of land with less use of water. As a result, the pressure on soil resources is reaching alarming levels and the threat of irreversible degradation looms large. So, there is an urgent need to create awareness about the importance of strategic resources like soil and promote its sustainable management.
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