Hama Arba Diallo says that desertification is a global problem and that tackling it requires global support

Desertification is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. A global problem, it has grave environmental consequences and generates major economic and political disruptions including loss of income – $42 billion a year worldwide – increasing poverty, mass migration and conflicts.

Poverty forces those who depend on land for their livelihood to overexploit it for food, energy, housing and sources of income. The resulting land degradation and the loss of productivity in turn destroy food security and increase poverty. Those affected are forced to leave their lands to seek other means of making a living, possibly coming into conflict with those already settled in the areas to which they migrate. In all, 135 million people – the equivalent of the population of Germany and France combined – are at risk of being displaced as a consequence of desertification. Half of the 50 armed conflicts around the world in 1994 had environmental factors characteristic of drylands among their causes. Desertification, poverty and environmental refugees mutually reinforce each other.

In Africa alone, an estimated $9 billion are lost from desertification every year. Half of the 50 million people expected to be environmental refugees by 2010 are from sub-Saharan Africa. By 2020, it is estimated, 60 million refugees will have moved from desertified areas in the Sahelian region to North Africa and the shores of Europe. Meanwhile, by the same year, the mass exodus from desertified drylands is projected to multiply the urban population in coastal cities of the Sahel 3.5 times over from its 1996 level to reach 271 million. The environmental resources in and around the cities and camps where they settle will come under severe pressure.

The problem, however, is not confined to the African drylands. Desertification affects over 110 countries worldwide. Some 70 per cent of the 5.2 billion hectares of dryland used for agriculture worldwide – 30 per cent of the Earth’s total land area – is already degraded and threatened by desertification. If this is left unchecked, arable land is expected to shrink by one third in Asia, two thirds in Africa and one fifth in South America, putting livelihoods at risk and propelling people to migrate.

Migrant workers
In Mexico, for example, drought and overexploitation of land and water have lowered the aquifers in the most heavily populated central region of the country to 40 per cent of their former levels. As a result, between 700,000 and 900,000 Mexicans leave their homes in the rural dryland every year and go to seek their livings as migrant workers in the United States of America. Many of the 12 million people affected by drought in Brazil’s northeastern Sertao region have migrated to São Paulo: they swelled the population of the city by 300,000 in 1999 alone. Over the last two decades 1.3 million people have fled Haiti as a result of environmental degradation compounded by political unrest: the island’s per capita grain production dropped by half between 1926 and 1996 and it only meets 80 per cent of its people’s nutritional needs.

Over 30 per cent of the land in the United States is affected by desertification. One fifth of Spain is at risk of turning into desert. Dust storms from deserts in northern China and Mongolia blow as far as Korea and Japan – and across the Pacific Ocean – forcing airports and schools to close. In China alone, some 24,000 villages, 1,400 kilometres of railway lines, 30,000 kilometres of highways and 50,000 kilometres of canals and waterways are constantly threatened by desertification. And there are many more examples from around the world.
Poverty forces those who depend on land for their livelihood to overexploit it
The international community adopted the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in 1994 to address this growing global threat effectively: it entered into force in 1996. By July 2002 181 states had already become Parties to the Convention, which has so far been successful in raising worldwide awareness on desertification and land degradation. The Convention has matured over these years and is now moving from the preparation of National Action Programmes (NAPs) – which outline long-term policy guidelines and are the primary tools for achieving the objectives of the UNCCD – to their implementation. As at July 2002, 57 country Parties had completed their NAPs. And the Convention’s reach became truly global when a fifth regional annex for Central and Eastern Europe was adopted in 2000 (entering into force in September 2001) to join the existing four – for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the northern Mediterranean, and Asia.

Strengthened capacities
The Convention is based on the principles of participation, partnership and decentralization – the backbone of good governance. The bottom-up approach that it has adopted, from the decision-making to the implementation process of the NAPs, has raised the profile and strengthened the capacities of those directly affected by desertification, and key local actors have succeeded in identifying and addressing challenges linked to sustainable development.

The UNCCD has repeatedly identified the lack of predictable financial resources as the greatest impediment to the implementation process. It therefore welcomed the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF’s) decision in May 2001 to designate land degradation, primarily desertification, as a focal area as a means of enhancing its support for the successful implementation of the Convention. The GEF’s financial support to the UNCCD is indeed indispensable if desertification and land degradation are to be contained and reversed. We therefore believe that the GEF Assembly will confirm the recommendation of its Council by identifying land degradation, primarily desertification, as a new, fully fledged focal area of the Facility, and will hear and implement the call made by the World Summit on Sustainable Development to designate the GEF as a financial mechanism of the UNCCD

Hama Arba Diallo is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

PHOTOGRAPH: Somkiat Sirrikol/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Unmatched opportunities | Global priority | Partnerships for change | Rising to new challenges | Much achieved, more to do | Message to the Second GEF Assembly | Africa Environment Outlook | Critical energy | Mapping the health of the planet | Regaining ground | Two to tango | Linking knowledge to action | Globalizing benefits | Unpopular POPs | Message to the Second GEF Assembly

Complementary articles in other issues:
Special supplement to coincide with the Global
Environment Facility Assembly
(Fresh Water) 1998

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and ecosystems: Deserts and drylands