The Guardian • Issue #2066


  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2066

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) was one of the Conventions that arose out of the 1992 Rio Earth summit. It receives far less funding and public coverage or attention than the conventions on climate change and biodiversity. The Global Environment Facility describes desertification as a “silent, invisible crisis that is destabilising communities on a global scale.” That is no exaggeration. The scale at which desertification is occurring is unsustainable – at approximately 30 to 35 times the historical rate due to human actions. Between 2015 and 2019 the world lost at least 100 million hectares of healthy and productive land every year, affecting food and water security globally. If desertification and land degradation continue at unabated, more than one billion hectares of productive land will be degraded by 2030. Even more daunting is an estimate that 95 per cent of the planet’s land area could be degraded by 2050 unless preventive and remedial steps are implemented immediately.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment stated that “desertification is potentially the most threatening ecosystem change impacting livelihoods of the poor.” The human population in drylands (arid and semi-arid areas) is projected to increase about twice as rapidly as in non-drylands where desertification is at its worst. The UN rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment released a report in June 2023 on desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD). The report says DLDD “reduce access to water for agriculture, drinking, cooking and hygiene, increasing the risks of food insecurity, malnutrition, waterborne diseases, conflict, and violence.” It notes that by 2030, “DLDD is likely to cause 135 million people to migrate.”

DLDD “undermine populations’ ability to adapt to extreme weather events, which are becoming increasingly common as the climate crisis worsens.” Drylands, which are home to three billion people in 169 States and cover almost half of the Earth’s land, are under severe threat from DLDD. Drylands provide fuel, food, building materials, and numerous ecosystem services including water filtration and retention and carbon sequestration. They hold 44 per cent of the world’s croplands, half of the world’s livestock and rich biodiversity. Many of the poorest countries are worst affected by DLDD while having the least resources to address the situation. They also tend to have the fastest growing populations.

Desertification is often driven by social, political, economic, and industrial forces in wealthy nations that benefit from the exploitation of resources in dryland regions. The causes of DLDD include climate change, unsustainable consumption of wealthy countries, intensive agricultural practices, population growth, and extractive industries including mining, oil and gas, and forestry.

“There are strong interactions between desertification and climate change. Climate change exacerbates desertification and land degradation by increasing the frequency and severity of heat-related events including drought, heatwaves, and wildfires. It also accelerates soil erosion on degraded lands. Conversely, desertification and land degradation impact climate change through reductions in vegetation cover, increases in sand and dust aerosols, and greenhouse gas fluctuations. The way these processes interact results in populations that are less resilient and able to adapt to desertification, land degradation and extreme events such as droughts and floods,” the report explains.

Policies to tackle DLDD require action on many fronts including climate change, biodiversity and conservation as well as removal of barriers to migration and increased finance for poorer countries affected. International cooperation is the only way forward with the rich countries acknowledging their responsibility. Indigenous peoples also have a vital role to play with their farming practices and knowledge of land management. Time is fast running out to tackle this “silent, invisible crisis.”

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