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Year of the Deserts gets under way
Posted: 01 Feb 2006

by John Rowley

In a long overdue recognition of the human tragedy involved in the degradation of the planet's drylands and the destruction of their biodiversity, the United Nations has launched the International Year of Deserts and Desertification 2006. It hopes to raise public awareness of the issue and protect the biological diversity of deserts as well as the traditional knowledge of those communities affected by desertification.

Dennis Bruhn courtesy UNEP
Loss of vegetation cover has caused serious soil erosion across Afghanistan such as in this village near Mazar-e-Sharif.
(Photo by Dennis Bruhn courtesy UNEP)
Drylands make up about 41 per cent of the Earth's surface and support more than 2 billion people. Between 10 and 20 per cent of drylands are degraded or unproductive. Land degradation affects one-third of the planet's land surface and, says the UN, threatens the health and livelihoods of more than one billion people in over one hundred countries.

Desertification is one of the world's most alarming processes of environmental degradation, according to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), set up after the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 highlighted the issue as one of key concern.

Fighting poverty

Each year, desertification and drought cause an estimated $42 billion in lost agricultural production. It contributes to food insecurity, famine and poverty, and can give rise to social, economic and political tensions that can cause conflicts, further poverty and land degradation.

Encroaching desert on family home, China © CCICCD
Encroaching desert on family home, China
What this means was spelt out recently by the report on Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Desertification Synthesis based on information generated for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

This said that infant mortality in drylands in developing countries averages about 54 children per 1,000 live births, 10 times that of industrial countries. Importantly, the rate in such drylands is twice as high as that of other, non-dryland regions in developing countries.

The authors rank desertification – land degradation in drylands as a result of climatic factors and human activities – among the world’s greatest environmental challenges, destabilizing societies by deepening poverty and creating environmental refugees who can often add stress to areas that may not be degraded.

Key Convention

The Convention to Combat Desertification is the only internationally recognised, legally binding instrument that addresses the problem of land degradation in dryland rural areas. It has a universal membership of 191 parties. And, through the Global Environment Facility (GEF) as its funding mechanism, it is able to channel resources to projects aimed at combating the problem, particularly in Africa.

"UNCCD plays a key role in the world's efforts to eradicate poverty, achieve sustainable development and reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)," said Kofi Annan in his message on the World Day to Combat Desertification

All countries and civil society organisations have been encouraged to undertake special initiatives to mark the International Year. The international celebrations will include a weeklong film festival in June in Rome, called Desert Nights, with documentaries and feature films on people in the drylands. The best fiction films from countries affected by desertification within the five regions of the convention – Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Northern Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Europe – will win awards.

Africa at risk

Africa is one of the regions most at risk. In Africa's Sahel region, where population is on course to double by 2030 and where climate change threatens to increase the incidence of drought, the problem is particularly acute. "Demographic dynamics (population growth, migration, population distribution, and urbanization) and commercialization of agriculture are resulting in reduced soil quality and pose a real threat to the Sahel's natural resources" according to a recent report in the French PopSahel bulletin.

In Tanzania, the Journalists Environmental Association (JET), has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issue that is closely linked to human activities including traditional methods of livestock keeping and poor farming methods.

According to the JET Chairman, Deodatus Mfugale, African desertification is strongly linked to poverty, migration and food security. He says that in many African countries combating desertification and promoting development are virtually one and the same due to the social and economic importance of the natural resources and agriculture.

’’Another effect of the problem is exhibited by the migration of Maasai and Sukuma livestock keepers who move into Morogoro, Mbeya, Iringa and Coast regions in search of pastures after land in their areas has been degraded and failed to support their livestock,’’ Mfugale said.

About one billion hectares in Africa, an equivalent of 73 per cent of its dry lands, are severely affected by desertification, in terms of costs Africa loses some US$90 billion a year, according to UNEP.

Football star

The honorary spokespersons for the year are Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya, Environment Minister Cherif Rahmani of Algeria and Bulgarian international football star and Golden Boot winner Hristo Stoitchkov

"We want to raise awareness at the international, regional, national and local level about the deserts," said Chérif Rahmani, "Desertification is a transnational issue and a global problem."

On the other hand Rahmani stressed the necessity to use the Year to "protect the biological diversity, knowledge and traditions of affected communities living in the desert"

Related links:

A website for the Year provides links to information materials, reports, planned activities and events around the world, by United Nations agencies, governments, non-governmental and private partners.

More information on deserts can be found in Oxfam's Cool Planet website

From our website:

Desertification and degraded land

Dryland crisis threatens planet's poor

Settlements retreat as deserts advance

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