Desertification on the march

by and

To the average person, “desertification” likely conjures up images of sandstorms sweeping across the Sahara. While this is one manifestation, desertification is a global process that persistently reduces the benefits people get from nature — collectively termed “ecosystem services.” This happens as plant cover is destroyed, water resources are over-exploited, soil quality is degraded due to erosion and use of chemicals, and consequently land productivity is irreversibly diminished.

Such processes are taking place all over the globe, not just in deserts.

Desertification is driven by an imbalance between human demand and the supply of benefits by natural systems. Population growth, inappropriate policies, and some aspects of globalization drive unsustainable pressure on drylands.

Occupying more than 40 percent of the world’s land area, drylands are home to over 2 billion people. Half of all people living in poverty are in drylands.

Low water availability in drylands today drives many of the challenges. The current average annual capacity of 1,300 cubic meters per person is already well below the minimum threshold of 2,000.

A new global report developed under the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) indicates that growing global desertification in dryland regions threatens the homes and livelihoods of millions of poor. Impacts of desertification are exacerbated by political marginalization of the dryland poor and the slow growth of health and education infrastructures.

Desertification in drylands, combined with other social, political and economic problems, takes its toll on the people living there. The MEA report shows that infant mortality in drylands in developing countries averages about 54 children per 1,000 live births, 10 times that of industrial countries. Importantly, this is also twice as high as the infant mortality rate elsewhere in developing countries. Income per capita and statistics for nutrient-deficient populations also show similar disparities.

Unfortunately, impacts of desertification are not limited to drylands. The impacts on the global environment — increasing dust storms, floods and global warming — are well known and documented. According to a recent NASA report, the fine grained particles from African dust storms carry a variety of microbes and menace the health of people in faraway places, like Florida.

Even more alarming are the broad impacts of desertification on societies and economies — notably those related to human migration and economic refugees. Migration patterns from North Africa to Europe can be partly attributed to degraded production capacity in the former. Internal displacement away from desertified areas within developing countries also puts hitherto nondesertified areas at a greater risk of productivity loss and causes tensions with the local populace.

The MEA report also provides future outlook based on various development scenarios and trends in ecosystem health today. In all these scenarios, desertification is deemed likely to increase over the next 50 years — along with its devastating global impacts. This also means that we will not be able to meet the Millennium Development Goals, a set of development targets for 2015 set by world leaders in 2000 — unless we do something rather drastic to improve the situation.

While we cannot change the physical and biological parameters of drylands easily, we can reduce human demands and related stress on drylands.

A variety of integrated policy options exist to reverse the decline of drylands while optimizing economic output. Chief among these are measures that protect soils from erosion and salinization, and integrated land use management policies that prevent overgrazing, over-exploitation and unsustainable irrigation practices.

Creating new and sustainable livelihood options for dryland populations should become part of national strategies for poverty reduction and combating desertification. The unique advantages of drylands — round-the-year available solar energy, attractive landscapes and large wilderness areas — can be utilized in new ways.

Drylands can produce sufficient solar-based energy to export to the rest of the world. Tourism based on dryland settings is gaining greater popularity, and can be encouraged still more.

While the international community has focused on catchy issues like climate change, it has orphaned the desertification problem. The irony is that desertification may become a major contributor to climate change, and dryland regions hold the largest capacity for carbon sequestration to offset the global warming.

This apathy was much in evidence during the seventh conference of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification in Nairobi last month. While reducing the overall budget available to the convention by 15 percent, the member states also neatly sidestepped making far-reaching commitments essential to overcome desertification.

Reversing desertification is a moral duty of the entire international community, as we all contribute to global desertification. It also is in the enlightened self-interest of industrialized countries to help overcome the distant dust storms and natural resource conflicts. For, as recent events have shown, we cannot escape the consequences of the depredations on nature no matter where they may be taking place.