UN Leaders Focus on Preventing the Spread of Deserts

NEW YORK, New York, September 20, 2011 (ENS) – A high-level meeting at the United Nations today concluded that preventing the world’s drylands from turning into deserts will take innovative strategies and must be done at the same time as climate change and poverty eradication are addressed.

“Drought and land degradation must therefore move to the center of policy development,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the meeting, one of several high-level events taking place this week on the margins of the opening session of the UN General Assembly.

“The world’s drylands are too often an investment desert – seen by governments and the international community as a lost cause. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Ban. He emphasized that drylands hold the potential to drive national economic growth and sustainable human development.

Family garden in the refugee camps of the Sahraouis in the Tindouf region of southwestern Algeria, a UNICEF project (Photo by Willem Vancotthem)

“By refocusing our development agenda to include the potential of drylands, we can break the links between poverty and desertification, drought and land degradation,” said Ban.

President of the UN General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar, understands desertification very well, as his own country consists of a low, sandy barren plain on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, overlying enormous oil and natural gas reserves.

“The economic, social and human cost of desertification is tremendous and I call upon the international community to take immediate and decisive action to address its impacts and to take measures for both its prevention and reversal,” said Al-Nasser today.

“Effectively addressing desertification and land degradation can only be done in the context of other major global challenges, such as climate change, poverty eradication, food security, deforestation and biodiversity loss,” he said.

Innovative policy interventions and shifts in sustainable land management strategies are needed to address the impacts of desertification, which must involve all stakeholders and local communities, Al-Nasser said.

Two billion people, nearly a third of the world’s population, live in these arid lands, which occupy more than 40 percent of Earth’s land area. They are world’s poorest and most vulnerable to hunger.

Residents in the arid the Horn of Africa currently are experiencing the most severe food crisis in the world. More than 13 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

Each year, more than 12 million hectares of productive land are lost due to spreading deserts, according to the Secretariat of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

While productive land becomes scarcer, greater food production is needed to meet a growing global population that is expected to hit seven billion later this year.

Providing food for the nine billion people predicted to live on Earth in 2050 is estimated to require a 70 percent increase in global food production from today’s level, UN officials say.

The drying of Lake Chad has brought food and water scarcity and migrations, resulting in conflicts. (Photo courtesy Sunday Adah)

New estimates from the Population Division of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs project that the population will reach 10.1 billion by 2100.

Still, “Drought does not have to become famine,” Ban said. “Too often the international community reacts too late. Too often decisions are taken based on false economies. In the end, we count the cost not just in human lives but in the extra expense of responding to crises that could have been averted for a fraction of the price.”

Established in 1994, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment, development and the promotion of healthy soils. The convention’s 194 government parties work to alleviate poverty in the drylands, maintain and restore the land’s productivity and mitigate the effects of drought.

UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja of the West African country of Benin told today’s meeting this is the first time that the convention’s core issues have been addressed by such a high-level political gathering since its entry into force in 1996.

Gnacadja said that reversing land degradation need not be a burden for public budgets, but can be “a driving force for sustainable and inclusive economic development.”

“To sustain life on Earth,” he said, “we must build a land degradation-neutral world,” a global commitment leading to effective action at all levels.

“I urge you as the leaders of our planet to take policy measures which will lead to a paradigm shift in the way we manage our land resources,” said Gnacadja. “Land degradation is happening everywhere in the world.”

By holding this meeting, General Assembly is calling on Member States, particularly the donor community and the United Nations System, to address the needs of drylands inhabitants by making investments that will contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

The purpose of the meeting is to raise awareness about desertification, land degradation and drought at the highest political level and to ensure that initiatives to combat desertification and land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought are accorded a higher priority on the international agenda, in particular at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro next June (Rio+20).

As the day-long meeting came to a close, Al-Nasser stressed prevention. “We must act on what we know,” he said, “that prevention is the most effective way to cope with desertification.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.