We must correct image of desertification and promote practical solutions

By Luc Gnacadja

Luc Gnacadja has called for desertification to be a central issue at Rio+20 in June

Contrary to popular perception, desertification is not the loss of land to desert.

Desertification means land degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas, commonly referred to as drylands.

When land degradation happens in the world’s drylands, it often creates desert-like conditions.  Land degradation occurs everywhere, but it is defined as desertification when it happens in drylands.

Drylands, where land is highly vulnerable to degradation due to aridity and water scarcity, call for our special attention.

Home to more than one third of the global population, drylands make up 44% of all the world’s cultivated systems and account for 50% of its livestock.

Yet, each year 12 million hectares of productive land – the area equal to half the size of UK or three times the size of Switzerland – is lost due to desertification and drought.

On this land 20 billion tons of grain could grow.  With the global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and growing food demand, we must do everything it takes to combat desertification.

The reasons of desertification are manifold.

Desertification is often caused by human activities, such as overgrazing, over-cultivation, deforestation and poorly planned irrigation systems. Extreme climatic events, such as droughts or floods, can accelerate this process.

Desertification is land degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas, commonly referred to as drylands (©Victoria Dearing/UNCCD Photo Contest 2009)

Addressing Desertification

In no other ecosystem are the interactions between the challenges of climate change and the conservation of biodiversity so closely linked to food security and poverty reduction.

In the drylands, we need to address these issues jointly and to adopt practical solutions that work for affected communities.

This requires cooperation between experts in different fields and in the mechanisms provided by the global community.

In this, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) plays an important role, promoting scientific and technological excellence, raising public awareness and mobilizing resources to prevent, control and reverse desertification and to mitigate the effects of drought.

We need to correct the image of desertification as an unstoppable monster slowly consuming the world’s fertile lands, plants, livestock and people.

Drylands make up 44 percent of all the world’s cultivated systems (© Fernando Laub/UNCCD Photo Contest)

Practical solutions to desertification already exist at many levels and are being successfully employed by communities around the world.

We need to promote sustainable land and water management techniques, agroforestry and re-greening initiatives and support them on the political level.

To this end, Rio+20 provides an important opportunity to increase the political momentum. First and foremost, world leaders need to set an ambitious target that will bring desertification to a halt and empower a land-degradation neutral society.

This target can be achieved by sustaining healthy soil and restoring degraded land.

I welcome the RTCC initiative on Desertification Week and encourage all of you to share your ideas about what needs to be done to prevent desertification.

I am looking forward to interesting discussions and experience sharing.

Luc Gnacadja is Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

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