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


  • 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

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs