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World Will Pay Dearly If It Fails to Combat Land Degradation

Melanie Haider

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 5 2011 (IPS) - Land degradation threatens populations and their livelihoods, driving food insecurity and decreasing productivity. Yet no comprehensive action has been taken to address this issue, and if none is taken now, degradation and all of its serious implications for the future will skyrocket, says a new study.

The world needs to wake up to the fact that productive land on this earth is diminishing while the world’s population is growing, resulting in elevated land prices and struggles over land, Ephraim Nkonya, lead researcher of the study, told IPS.

The study, released in September 2011, is entitled “The Economics of Land Degradation: The Costs of Action Versus Inaction” and was published jointly by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Centre for Development Research in Bonn.

IFPRI is an international agricultural research centre that “seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty”.

Desertification, deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion and salinisation are some more visible forms of land degradation, defined otherwise as the loss of ecosystem services. Both humans and nature can cause forms of degradation.

“In the past 50 years, a very short time, we have lost about 60 percent of the ecosystem services. That is a very big loss in a very short time,” Nkonya said, referring to the findings of the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a U.N. initiative that explored the impact of ecosystem changes on the well being of humans.

These services, he said, include concrete products like food, fibre, bio-fuel, trees, forage, and biochemicals, as well as so-called regulatory services that modify the environment, such as water purification and regulation, pollination, climate regulation through carbon storage and water cycling, and soil formation.

The study calls for political decision-making processes to take into account the economic value of these services. Yet even evaluating their market value is far from easy, due to a lack of knowledge in the area because of regional differences and measurements’ constraints.

To carry out this evaluation, the researchers stressed the need to know the condition of the land’s resources at a local and global level and their ecosystem services, all of which require research.

The study’s authors pointed to a link between poverty (as measured by the mortality rate of children under five) and land degradation, as well a clear link between greater government effectiveness and decreased degradation.

In the case of population density and land degradation, contrary to popular belief, the study found that in some regions, such as Europe, East Asia, Latin America and Central Africa, an increase in population density was associated with land improvement while in others it was linked to degradation of the land.

The difference the report revealed was that the countries with a very dense population that did not degrade the land had more effective governments.

Calling for a global evaluation of costs

In the study, which was a pilot report for more comprehensive work in the future, the researchers argued for a global cooperative evaluation of what the environmental, economic and social costs would be to prevent land degradation compared to the costs of proceeding as usual.

Assessing the costs would be more conducive to spurring action by helping people realize the benefits of taking action.

Nkonya and his fellow researchers did case studies in developing countries like India, Kenya, Niger and Peru and found that “in most cases the cost of action is very small, compared to the cost of inaction”.

They discovered, for example, that Niger, a country in western Africa highly dependent on its land for food and income, loses eight percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) because of overgrazing, salinity in irrigated rice and soil nutrient depletion of sorghum and millet.

The cost of preventing salinity in irrigated rice, in Niger, is about 10 percent of the cost of inaction per hectare, and the cost of preventing overgrazing is about 20 percent of what it would be if overgrazing continued.

Nkonya said that many similar global examples exist. For example, preventing coral reef degradation would cost 270 million dollars annually, with its benefits amounting to 75 billion dollars per year.

The study recommended several methods to mitigate and possibly prevent degradation, including decentralizing natural resource management to empower local institutions, increased investments in agricultural research, improved access to rural services and communication infrastructure.

Moreover, it said that land users must receive direct benefits from preventing or mitigating land degradation. These benefits would serve as incentive for the land user to invest in sustainable land management practices.

More than just desertification

Nkonya said that through the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the international community has done a lot to improve land degradation in dry areas, where it takes the form of desertification.

Still, the international community has overlooked humid or sub-humid areas, where between 1981 and 2003, 78 percent of the world’s land degradation took place, according to a 2003 land degradation assessment study commissioned by the United Nations Food and Agricultural organisation (FAO).

“It is very difficult to change the convention itself, which has been focusing much on the dry areas,” Nkonya stated, although some voices at the U.N. have said they are now considering changing the convention because “it is actually misleading to just look at desertification”.

“We are focusing on very small areas of the big problem that we have,” Nkonya said, adding that the reason the focus has been on dry areas is because when droughts occur, they hit populations in dry areas much harder than in humid areas. Poverty is also more severe in dry areas than in the humid areas.

But land degradation in humid areas also affects the dry areas, given that many countries import food from the humid areas, so the regions are all interconnected.

Next month, Nkonya and his research companions will urge countries to carry out a global initiative to conduct a study on the economics of land degradation at the annual meeting, called the Conference of Parties (COP), for the 194 countries that signed the U.N. convention to combat desertification.

An estimated 925 million people went hungry in 2010, according to U.N. figures. The COP will provide a vital opportunity for countries to commit to combating land degradation and ensuring a sustainable environment and food security on a planet that will have to feed and accommodate more than 9 billion people by 2050.


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