News / Africa

UN: Don’t Let Our Future Dry Up

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

Multimedia

Audio
  • Listen to De Capua report on combating desertification

Joe DeCapua
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.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs