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UN Observes 10th Anniversary of International Campaign to Fight Desertification - 2004-06-17

This week in Bonn, Germany, the United Nations is observing the 10th anniversary of its international campaign to fight desertification. Desertification is the degradation of once useful land that the U.N. says is threatening food security and triggering humanitarian and economic crises.

One fifth of the world's population is threatened by the impact of desertification. Defined as the degradation of formally productive land, the effects of desertification can be seen all over the world. Thursday, experts say one third of the earth's surface is threatened by desertification, which adds up to an area of over 4 billion hectares of the planet. On the tenth anniversary of the U.N. convention to combat desertification, the United Nations and its agencies are highlighting the issues involved. Mary Seely is director of the desert research foundation of Namibia.

"Desertification is not just expanding deserts, but it is land degradation, which results very often from too many people using scarce resources often exacerbated by climate change," she explained. "People should be very concerned about land degradation because it means there are fewer resources the soil is producing, fewer crops, the animals have less to graze upon, there are fewer trees and available woody vegetation, there's less water, clean water available for people to use. It is simply a decrease in the quality of life in this at the same time when human populations are increasing."

The regions of the world that are most effected by desertification are Asia, Latin America, North America and the Mediterranean. However, experts such as environmentalist writer Wilma Keppel contend it is a global problem.

"Partly because desertification is causing all kinds of expensive social disruptions and wars and so forth, and partly because it's affecting our environment too," she said. "There are almost a billion people who are directly affected by desertification and the kinds of land damage that are related to desertification but don't show up that way because the climates are wetter, affect just about everybody on earth. You're paying more and I'm paying more because of that kind of land damage, and you and I are also exposed to pesticides and herbicides that are being used to counteract exactly the kinds of problems that in a dryer environment lead to desertification."

The United Nations says arable land per person is shrinking throughout the world, threatening food security, particularly in poor rural areas, and triggering humanitarian and economic crises.