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UN: Don’t Let Our Future Dry Up

  • Joe DeCapua

Desertification means land has degraded to the point where it can no longer hold water, says UN Convention to Combat desertification. Credit: UNCCD

Desertification means land has degraded to the point where it can no longer hold water, says UN Convention to Combat desertification. Credit: UNCCD

June 17 is World Day to Combat Desertification. In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit described desertification as one of the greatest challenges to development. This year’s theme is drought and water scarcity.

Water covers most of our planet, but only about two and a half percent of it is freshwater. And of that small amount, U.N. experts say, “The total useable supply for ecosystems and humans is less than one percent.” This year’s World Day to Combat Desertification slogan is: Don’t Let Our Future Dry Up.

“Desertification, and particularly drought, is one of the major natural disasters. The death toll out of drought exceeds any other natural disasters, like tornado or tsunami,” said Dr. Yukie Hori, Coordinator of Awareness Raising, Communication and Education at the UNCCD, U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification.

It’s estimated that since 1979, drought has claimed over one-point-six-billion lives. The 2011 drought in Somalia and nearby regions resulted in thousands of deaths. In May, Namibia declared a national drought emergency. Officials there say 14 percent of the country’s population is now food insecure. Nearly 11-and-a-half million people remain food insecure in Africa’s Sahel region. U.N. officials say the wildfires in parts of the United States are directly linked to last year’s drought.

But why do so many people die in droughts when they are not sudden disasters like earthquakes?

“Because it is a creeping nature of disaster not many people pay enough attention for the importance of land recovery, which prevents and manages drought, as well as to secure water resources,” she said.

Hori said that freshwater is renewable, but it depends on the health of ecosystems, including land and soil.

“Some 70 percent of the freshwater available globally is held in the soil, which is accessible to plants. And only 11 percent is accessible as stream flow and groundwater. But when the soil is degraded, it loses the capacity to hold water. So that will lead to drought and water scarcity. So it’s quite [a] serious issue in the world now.”

She said that raising awareness about the issue can be difficult because of the misunderstanding of the word “desertification.”
“Desertification is not about desert. But when people hear that word, desertification, they think about desert. You picture in your mind a vast sand dune, and this is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about land degradation in drylands, which affect many people, almost everyone, directly or indirectly, around the world,” she said.

“Forty percent of the world’s meat production,” she said, “occurs on drylands. If the land is degraded by over-cultivation and over-grazing, then production may move to other locations. As a result, many trees may be felled to clear land leading to deforestation.”

For example, do not just exist in Africa. The U.S. has large areas of drylands.

“Seventeen states of [the] United States are characterized as drylands. And land degradation – that means desertification – is taking place in the states. But not many people understand that and know about it,” said Hori.

In the 1930s, giant dust storms ravaged the Great Plains of the U.S. The so-called black blizzards sometimes reached New York City. Those ecological disasters have been blamed on humans. Poor farming techniques eliminated grasses acclimated to wind and drought. When the winds came, some of the world’s best topsoil blew away destroying communities and lives.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said the time has come to go beyond treating drought as an emergency situation. He says while droughts are hard to avoid, their effects can be lessened. Mr. Ban said, “The price of preparedness is minimal compared to the cost of disaster relief.” He’s called for a shift from crisis management to building resilience.

In March, the High-Level Meeting on National Drought Policy was held in Geneva. It recommended coordination of drought programs and response; proactive measures to protect the land; a safety net of emergency relief; and government and private insurance plans, among other things.

“Droughts happen as natural phenomena, but the [severity] of drought can be predicted and managed. In that case, [an] early warning system makes a lot of difference in peoples’ lives and also crop production. And there’s only one national drought policy [existing] today and which is [in] Australia. But the rest of the countries who are prone to drought do not have consolidated means to mitigate the effect of drought,” she said.

The UNCCD has given its Land for Life Award this year to organizations in India, Mexico and Australia for their efforts to protect ecosystems. It also says countries such as Eritrea, Kenya, Hungary, Portugal and Thailand are honoring those who’ve worked to protect drylands.