Stopping Desertification with Land Management

 

A boy crosses a sand dune in China’s Gansu province, where overfarming has drained the water table so low that desert is overtaking farmland

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
21 September 2011

Washington — Degradation of the land supporting human life and the food supply is an environmental threat that endangers the lives and livelihoods of more than 1 billion people worldwide. On September 20, world leaders met in a high-level U.N. forum for the first time to address desertification and drought.

“Land is life, and our life depends on land,” said U.N. General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar. Fully one-fourth of the planet’s land mass is on the verge of degradation and desertification, he said. “The economic, social and human cost of desertification is tremendous.”

Administrator Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) represented the United States at the session, and said that progress on long-standing international goals to eradicate poverty and hunger could be undermined by serious and widespread land degradation. He presented sustainability as the solution.

“Addressing desertification through long-term sustainable land management and agricultural development is one of the most effective tools we have to prevent the crises that result from a lack of available food and nutrition,” he said.

Crisis takes form today in the Horn of Africa, where 13 million people are facing severe malnutrition, largely because of crop failure brought on by drought and poor land management. Shah has been to the region and oversees an aid effort involving more than $600 million. He delved into U.S. history for a comparable event, pointing out that in the 1930s, the United States faced a humanitarian disaster brought on by poor land use, driving millions of people off eroded lands in search of food and opportunity elsewhere.

“We strengthened collaboration between local governments and farmers, invested in agricultural universities to foster innovations in farming practices and water management,” said Shah, “and embarked on larger-scale efforts to manage our production lands more sustainably.”

Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, said the occurrence of drought worldwide has doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s. “In the drylands, due to drought and desertification, 12 million hectares are transformed into new man-made deserts. That is an area with the potential to produce 20 million tons of grain each year.”

Lee Don Koo, minister of South Korea’s forest service, said his nation is shifting its economic development strategy from one that is growth driven to one based on “green growth.” Recognizing that land sustains decent lives, Lee said his government now works to achieve expanded development through successful forestry practices.

The humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Horn of Africa was repeatedly cited in the U.N. discussion as an example of the worst consequences of land degradation and desertification, providing international leaders with enormous incentive to take action to move toward sustainable land use.

“And though the American people will always provide aid in times of urgent need, emergency assistance is not the most efficient or lasting solution,” said Shah. “The reality is we must do more to prevent these crises in the first place.” The Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative aims to help vulnerable nations create more resilient agricultural sectors and food systems, Shah said, to prevent the famine and desperate migration that has beset East Africa today.

The U.N. Convention on Desertification was signed in 1994 and took effect in 1996. Today, almost 200 countries are parties to the agreement. The results of the U.N. discussion will be presented at the next conference of parties to the convention, to be held in South Korea in October.