This research integrated selected land degradation indicators (vegetation cover, proportion of drifting sand area, desertification rate, and population pressure) with geo-information techniques (remote sensing, geographic information system and global positioning system) to assess the severity of land degradation risk. The northern part of Shaanxi province in China was taken as a case study. A computerized land degradation severity assessment was implemented, and ERmapper ver.6.2 and ARC/INFO GIS ver.8.3 environments were used to manage and manipulate thematic data, and to process satellite images and tabular data. Two Landsat TM images in October 1987 and October 1999 were used to produce land use/cover maps of the study area based on the maximum likelihood classification method. These maps were then used to generate land use, land cover change, vegetation degradation and land degradation maps for the study area during the study period, and their corresponding data were integrated into a systematic analysis. Results showed that the overall severity of land degradation in the study area worsened during the study period from 1987 to 1999 with severely, highly and moderately degraded land accounting for 73·8 per cent of the total area. While the area affected by desertification has increased, the rate of desertification has also accelerated to reach 41·5 km2 a−1. Risk of land degradation in the study area has increased, on average, by 39·4 per cent since 1987. Incorporation of both natural and anthropogenic factors in the analysis provided realistic assessment of the risk of desertification. The study area, in general, is exposed to a high risk of land degradation.