UN warns of desertification crisis

Posted: 17 November 2008

"Without proper action, both in developing and developed countries, some 50 million people could be displaced by desertification and land degradation within the next ten years" the world conference on desertification, meeting in Turkey last week, was told.

Map of deserts
Map of deserts
Map of the desert biome, according to UNEP criteria. Click to enlarge.
The warning from Mr. Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification came at the close of the meeting at the weekend.

"The delegates here in Istanbul took a big stride to guide the next year's ninth Conference of the Parties" [the decision making body of the Convention], he told the representatives from 134 countries. "We are all on the same page. But it has to be remembered that without proper action by stakeholders, both in developing and developed countries, some 50 million people could be displaced by desertification and land degradation within the next ten years."

The Committee for Science and Technology,the scientific advisory body of the Convention, will now select a minimum set of indicators to measure the impact of the Convention. These indicators will be applicable to all countries so that a common standard can make analysis feasible. Delegates hope that this will increase the effectiveness of the Convention decisions.

They also agreed on reporting principles to measure progress in putting the Convention's ten-year strategic plan, agreed in Madrid last year, into practice.It was agreed to strengthen the involvement of civil society organisations in the review process.

'Time to act'

Salinization of desert soils
Salinization of desert soils
Salinization of desert soils: a Sindhi cowherd and grazing cattle on a former rice field. Photo: © UNEP/Andrew Warren
"Setting, achieving and monitoring targets on land improvement with incentive mechanisms could redefine the concept and the content of international development co-operation," Mr. Gnacadja said.

The new recommendations would entail a wider use of the information generated by countries and would achieve a higher level of accountability. "The pieces have fallen together here in Istanbul [to fight desertification]. Now is the time to act," concluded Mr. Gnacadja.

Note: Developed as a spin off from the Rio Summit in 1992, UNCCD has helped to bring attention to land degradation in some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and people in the world - but has seen very little national action to deal with the problem. The Desertification Convention has the largest membership of the three Rio Conventions.

The estimate that some 50 million people could be displaced within the next 10 years if action is not taken arose from a study by the United Nations University in 2007, which suggested that climate change is making desertification "the greatest environmental challenge of our times".

The study was produced by more than 200 experts from 25 countries. It said one-third of the Earth's population - home to about two billion people - are potential victims of its creeping effect. Experts agree that tree planting is one answer to the problem but warn that it may put pressure on scarce water resources

"Desertification has emerged as an environmental crisis of global proportions, currently affecting an estimated 100 to 200 million people, and threatening the lives and livelihoods of a much larger number," the study said. The largest area affected was probably sub-Saharan Africa, where people are moving to northern Africa or to Europe, while the second area is the former Soviet republics in central Asia,

The overexploitation of land and unsustainable irrigation practices are making matters worse, while climate change is also a major factor in degrading the soil, it said.

Related links:

Factfile: Desertification and degraded land

Year of the Deserts

Drylands crisis threatens world's poor