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U.N. Decade Hopes to Push Back Encroaching Deserts

Megan Iacobini de Fazio

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 16 2010 (IPS) - Desertification has long been recognised as a major environmental, economic and social problem for countries the world over. But despite major efforts, which started with the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNOCD) in 1977, the process of land degradation is intensifying.

Dryland near Manatuto, Timor-Leste. Water scarcity can lead to both desertification and conflict in communities and between countries. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

Dryland near Manatuto, Timor-Leste. Water scarcity can lead to both desertification and conflict in communities and between countries. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

Yukie Hori of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) told IPS that “the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification adopted at the 1977 conference did not draw enough attention to improve land degradation in the drylands”.

However, it marked a new beginning in the fight against desertification and “supported a new, integrated approach to the problem, emphasising action to promote sustainable development at the community level”, Hori said, adding that, “This is what the UNCCD is today.” Promoting actions to protect the world’s drylands is the purpose of the Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification, launched Monday, Aug. 16 and which will run from January 2010 to December 2020.

It coincides with the opening of the Second International Conference on Climate, Sustainability and Development in Semi-arid Regions, which is to take place in the city of Fortaleza, in the dryland state of Ceará, Brazil.

At a time when people in West Africa are suffering severe food shortages as a result of prolonged drought, the importance of drawing attention to desertification and its consequences cannot be underestimated, experts say.

The worst affected is the eastern Sahel region, where the World Food Programme (WFP) is implementing an emergency operation to assist as many as eight million drought- stricken people.

The hope is that the initiatives of the Decade will help reverse the desertification process, thus avoiding such widespread drought-related crisis in the future.

The global launch in Brazil will be complemented by regional events, such as a joint United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) press conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

The simultaneous launches are to underline the fact that, although the focus of the Decade is mainly the degradation of drylands, “Desertification is a global issue”.

Desertification, defined as the degradation of dryland ecosystems both by human activities and climatic variations, occurs in all continents except Antarctica, but is of special concern in arid and dry subhumid areas.

The major human-related factors leading to desertification are the unsustainable use of resources as a consequence of population pressure, socioeconomic policies and land use patterns.

It is estimated that one billion people in over one hundred countries are affected by desertification, and that if the process is not stopped it could lead to the disruption of 44 percent of all the world’s cultivated systems.

“When it happens, land degradation has far reaching consequences which affect many realms of life, sometimes far away,” Hori noted.

Recent studies indicate that drylands take up 41.3 percent of the land’s surface and are inhabited by 2.1 billion people.

Dryland populations are amongst the most impoverished in the world, with a per capita income on average almost 10 times lower than OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. Child mortality rates are also very high, with an average of 54 for every 1,000 births.

Although “the process of desertification has intensified by looking at overall statistics, it does not mean that desertification has intensified everywhere,” Hori told IPS. Improvement, she said, can be measured by “the accumulation of local examples of success”.

One such example is that of the Africa Re-greening Initiatives (ARI). ARI promotes natural regeneration to support farmers in adapting to climate change and to improve food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

By introducing more complex and productive systems, with the integration of agriculture, livestock and forestry, ARI aims to achieve a 10 percent increase in agricultural production, with a consequent reduction of poverty of about six to nine percent.

Impacts of “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” are not limited to reversing desertification.

Successful projects of this kind improve biodiversity and the fertility of soils, but also have a social impact.

They can improve the lives of women, who don’t have to travel as far to collect firewood, and reduce conflict between herders and farmers, thanks to the higher availability of resources.

Limiting or reversing desertification can also stabilise entire regions by stemming the flow of migrants who, due to drought and food shortages, cross borders in search of more fertile lands.

Hori told IPS that, as in the Africa Re-greening initiatives, “Successful initiatives to stop desertification must come from community people, supported by local, national and international policy makers.”

The Decade, spearheaded by the UNCCD, in collaboration with the Department of Public Information, the U.N. Secretariat in New York, the UNEP, the UNDP and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), aims to “reach people both in drylands and non-drylands, developed and developing countries, over the importants of drylands as assets to the global future”.

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