4 September 2003 Edition

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Encroaching deserts a problem for us all

Climate change is more than rain or drought, it is about the impact that misdirected developmental policies have on the life of human populations around the world.

The damage caused by desertification amounts to $42 billion per year, a situation that could be tackled with a contribution in the same period of $2.4 billion; a sum equivalent to 8% of the Third World interest on its external debt.

Desertification is not the natural expansion of existing deserts but the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. It is a gradual process of soil productivity loss and the thinning out of the vegetative cover because of human activities and climatic variations such as prolonged droughts and floods. What is alarming is that though the land's topsoil, if mistreated, can be blown and washed away in a few seasons, it takes centuries to build up. Among human causal factors are overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation, and poor irrigation practices. Such overexploitation is generally caused by economic and social pressure, ignorance, war, and drought.

Desertification is also one of the main causes of people's forced displacement.

More than 170 countries were represented at the Sixth UN Conference on Desertification and Drought last week as poor countries complained about apathy among the richer ones. The conference looked at solutions to desertification, to alleviate world poverty and halt the destruction of the planet. The conference was the largest gathering ever of high-ranking officials and experts to discuss and decide on concrete actions to fight desertification.

Around 3,000 representatives of governments, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, and the media, including heads of state, more than 90 government ministers, parliamentarians, NGOs and numerous renowned intellectuals, convened in Havana, Cuba.

Desertification is a global phenomenon, affecting all developed and developing countries around the world. It directly affects 250 million people and a third of the earth's land surface, or over 4 billion hectares. In addition, the livelihoods of some one billion poor people, who depend on land for most of their needs in over 100 countries, are threatened.

Though desertification affects Africa the most, where two-thirds of the continent is desert or dry lands, it is not a problem confined to this continent. Over 30 percent of the land in the United States is affected by desertification. One quarter of Latin America and the Caribbean consists of deserts and dry lands. South America is already suffering increasing periods of drought and tropical storms caused by changes in global climatic patterns, which are seriously threatening the Amazon rainforest. Deforestation in this region has led to a 20% reduction of rainfall.

Italy and Spain joined the Desertification Convention because of fears that the Sahara is crossing the Mediterranean. In Spain, one fifth of the land is at risk of turning into deserts.

The growing severity of the threat in the Northern Hemisphere is also illustrated by severe droughts in the United States - reduced rainfall will affect a significant part of the population, including that of New York and other large cities - and water scarcity in southern Europe. Some scientists are linking climatic changes with the recent forest fires that have swept through several European countries.

In China, since the 1950s, sand drifts and expanding deserts have taken a toll of nearly 700,000 hectares of cultivated land, 2.35 million hectares of rangeland, 6.4 million hectares of forests, woodlands and shrub lands. Another phenomenon that has arisen from desertification is the displacement of more than 100,000 people in Asian and Pacific countries.

Worldwide, some 70 percent of the 5.2 billion hectares of dry lands used for agriculture are already degraded and threatened by desertification.

Themes to be discussed in Havana included methods through which support can be given to halt the advance of desertification which has principally arisen due to an inappropriate exploitation of land, cultivated without adequate technical and scientific controls, Delegates also discussed how to help victims of the phenomenon.

Among practical measures to prevent and restore degraded land are:

* prevention of soil erosion;

* improved early warning system and water resource management;

* sustainable pasture, forest and livestock management;

* aero-seeding over shifting sand dunes;

* narrow strip planting, windbreaks and shelterbelts of live plants;

* agroforestry ecosystems;

* afforestation and reforestation;

* introduction of new species and varieties with a capacity to tolerate salinity and/or aridity; and

* environmentally sound human settlements.

Because poverty forces the people who depend on land for their livelihoods to overexploit the land for food, energy, housing and source of income, and desertification is thus both the cause and consequence of poverty, any effective strategy must address poverty at its very centre. The United Nations approach takes into account social structures and land ownership as well as paying proper attention to education, training and communications in order to provide the fully integrated approach that alone can effectively combat desertification.

But, most importantly, the United Nations has identified desertification as one of the root causes of political and socio-economic problems and a threat to the environmental equilibrium in affected regions. The land's loss of productivity exacerbates poverty in the dry lands, forcing its farmers to seek a way of living in more fertile lands or cities. In fact, 135 million people - the equivalent to the population of Germany and France combined - are at risk of being displaced as a consequence of desertification. Some 60 million people are expected to eventually move from the desertified areas in Sub-Saharan Africa towards northern Africa and Europe in the next 20 years. Every year, between 700,000 and 900,000 Mexicans leave their rural dry land homes to find a living as migrant workers in the United States. Half of the 50 armed conflicts in 1994 had environmental causal factors characteristic of the dry lands.

Desertification also has grave natural consequences. It makes land areas flood-prone, causes soil salinisation, and results in the deterioration of the quality of water, silting of rivers, streams and reservoirs. Unsustainable irrigation practices can dry up the rivers that feed large lakes; the Aral Sea and Lake Chad have both seen their shorelines shrink dramatically in this way. Land degradation is also a leading source of land-based pollution for the oceans, as polluted sediment and water washes down major rivers.

The Conference comes at an important juncture in the development of the Convention, which is moving from preparation to implementation of National Action Programmes (NAPs). Already, 66 counties have finalised these long-term policy guidelines and the Conference is expected to provide critical impetus to the anti-desertification drive.

The conclusions of the round tables are expected to add momentum to the discussions on follow-up measures to the World Summit on Sustainable Development held last year in South Africa. The goal is to advance sustainable development in the context of the Millennium Development Goals of reducing those across the globe living in extreme poverty to half the 1990 level by 2015.

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