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13 September 2007 Edition

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INTERNATIONAL : Climate change sees deserts growing across the globe

Parched Earth

 A bad summer? Well, don’t expect too much better in the future. And if you recently purchased a property overseas in order to avail of sunnier climes be aware you may soon be holidaying in the European equivalent of the Sahara, as desertification threatens the southern reaches of the continent, while all to the North will continue to suffer excessive rainfall. Ironically, one region of the globe where rainfall has already declined is the perpetually wet and damp Equator.
These, in broad terms, were the findings of a recent report on global warming published by the Toronto Group ahead of a major United Nations conference on the issue, taking place in Madrid.
The threat of desertification is not just one facing the residents of southern Europe and north Africa, rather it confronts some 1.2 billion people across the world. And as with all else, it is the poorest who are most vulnerable, the wealthiest who will shirk their responsibilities and the entrepreneurs who will make money from other people’s misery.
Africa is the most seriously threatened, with poverty and unregulated and often illegal human activity – illegal logging, mining – threatening a slow catastrophe for millions.
But even a green and increasingly saturated Ireland will feel the impact of the threatened global desertification process. According to United Nations, 135 million people will be forced to migrate to urban areas in the northern hemisphere to settle predominantly in shanty towns, thereby putting greater pressure on already scant resources. Indeed, we are already seeing the first evidence of this process of environmentally-driven migration with the increasingly frequent reports of drownings and other hardships experienced by those trying to negotiate open seas in flimsy vessels, on their way to ‘a better life’ in Europe.
The Worldwatch Institute estimates that over the last two decades, desertification has claimed an area equivalent to all arable land in the US.  Ultimately, this will also put pressure on global food supplies, as the land available for crop cultivation slowly disappears.
Desertification and land degradation are not inexorable forces of nature. Although droughts, floods and global warming play their part, desertification is a process that involves human action or inaction, such as deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices. The key causes behind desertification are the excessive use of land, the excessive grazing of cattle, deforestation and irrigation schemes’ defective drainage.
In an article penned for the Madrid conference, Lennart Bage, President, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) points out that the Fund activities are “inextricably linked to tackling land degradation and promoting the sustainable management of natural resources”.  
Over the past 27 years, IFAD’s support for dryland development and combating land degradation has totalled US$3.5 billion.
Walter Erdelen, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Science, points out that in the 1950s a greater sense of optimism prevailed with regard to our capacity to ‘green’ the world’s deserts and effectively ‘tame’ nature.
It was believed that techniques such as cloud seeding could bring rainfall to dry areas and that improved irrigation techniques could boost agricultural production. In short, it was suggested that technology alone could reduce and eliminate poverty.
Much the same nonsense was peddled in the mid-’90s by corporations – primarily US based – who were involved in the production of GM food
One company even proclaimed its GM crops would end world hunger.
Hunger does not result from the global absence or shortage of food, it results from a shortage or an absence of the resources necessary to purchase or produce food, money and land being the primary means. It really is that simple and not about if hi-tech wizardry can remedy the global distribution of wealth – only people can fix that.
Tourism is another sector where change is required. In certain parts of Spain, for example, local populations are forced to endure water shortages in order to facilitate the golf courses and swimming pools of the tourists.  
Indeed, the impact of desertification can already be seen in parts of Spain, particularly south of Madrid and along the Catalan Coast.

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