Desert reaches Europe

Desert reaches Europe


describes how desertification has caused an
environmental crisis in European Russia
and the struggle, assisted by UNEP,
to combat it

The dark shadow of desertification has now fallen upon Europe, which once seemed far removed from the problem so prevalent in Africa and Asia. Desertification - processes of degradation of dry farmland - is starting to affect many European countries. Russia, the largest country on the European continent, is no exception; already more than 100 million hectares are either affected by desertification or under threat of it.

Desertification processes are already well under way in the Astrakhan, Volgograd and Rostov regions, the Altai krai and the Republics of Tyva and Dagestan, while parts of the Krasnodar krai and the Stavropol krai have also been affected. Areas under threat include land in the southern part of the steppe zone in the Voronezh, Saratov, Orenburg, Omsk, Chelyabinsk and Chita regions, and in the Republics of Khakasia and Buryatia.

Perhaps the worst situation, however, is to be found in the Kalmyk Republic, the most arid region of the European part of the Russian Federation. Over 80 per cent of its territory is now in the grip of desertification, and almost half is either severely or very severely affected. This is surpassed only by the deserts of Central Asia.

Degradation of the once unique pastures of the Black Lands of the Republic has led to the first man-made desert in Europe, with areas of open and blown sand. Satellite photography confirms that large quantities of this sand are blown well past the boundaries of the Republic during dust storms, reaching the borders of European countries beyond Russia.

In 1993, President Ilyumzhinov of the Kalmyk Republic declared a state of emergency in response to a major deterioration in the state of the environment. The crisis resulted from intensive land degradation and a shortage of water, together with the increasing human load on the natural environment over the last few decades and extreme natural conditions, causing a decline in the health of the population and falls in both life-expectancy and the quality of life. These, in turn, threatened the gene pool of the Kalmyk people - and pointed the way towards ecological ethnocide.

Following the declaration of a state of emergency, there was a timely visit to the Republic by Leonid Krumkachev of UNEP - and subsequent financial support from UNEP to the National Action Programme to Combat Desertification in the Kalmyk Republic, drawn up in line with the main principles of the international United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification. National Action Programmes, which define the strategy to be used to combat desertification and to moderate the consequences of drought, are one instrument to be employed in implementing the Convention.

The Programme developed in Kalmykia, largely through the efforts of locally-based scientists, has been approved by the Government of the Republic. The next task is to ensure that the Programme is smoothly integrated into the Republic's plans for social and economic development. I would like to thank the Executive Director of UNEP, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and the Director of the Dryland Ecosystems and Desertification Control Programme Activity Centre, Franklin Cardy, for their understanding and for the financial support made available to the Republic.

One of the Programme's projects, presented at the eighth session of the International Negotiating Committee for the Elaboration of an International Convention to Combat Desertification, by President Ilyumzhinov, and named Creation of a European Aridity Centre, was discussed at the session and became an official Convention document, reference A/AC.241/60.

We are considering setting up a European Aridity Centre in Kalmykia - the region most vulnerable to desertification in the continent - as one way of addressing the problem as it affects European countries. One important argument in favour of this is that our unique natural environment is unmatched in the world as an opportunity to preserve the steppe region gene pool, a genetic data bank for the planet. Besides, it makes sense to site a centre to combat desertification in the place where it is most needed.

The idea is supported by Russian and foreign scientists, and was approved by the Russian Academy of Sciences at the touring conference - Problems Associated with Studying Arid Ecosystems and Combating Desertification - held in Elista in November 1995.

Linking Europe to the world

The Centre could become the European link in a larger, international system, since developing a global network of research institutions and other structures to address the problems of combating desertification has been envisaged as a way of assisting the Convention.

It is very unfortunate that Russia has not yet become a signatory to the Convention to Combat Desertification, though this is still under consideration. The Convention seeks to address desertification problems in all countries, and Russia's involvement would undoubtedly create a more favourable climate for developing practical cooperation with key bilateral and multilateral donors in order to implement environmental projects and programmes in the regions of the country exposed to desertification and drought.

Nevertheless, we are already carrying out a wide range of measures to prevent land degradation and drought in Russia. Work is going on in the Astrakhan region, the Dagestan Republic and the Kalmyk Republic to implement the Federal Programme entitled "A general plan to combat desertification of the Black Lands and the Kizlyar Pastures", while in Volgograd the Institute of Forest and Land Improvement is making good progress in its work. By presidential decree, large-scale planting operations are carried out every spring and autumn in desertified areas in the Kalmyk Republic, much work is being done to optimize the network of protected natural areas, and so on.

Further initiatives

The President has also announced an initiative to set up an Association of Arid Regions of Russia and to establish a Special Federal Programme to protect areas of the Russian Federation from the processes of degradation. The aims are to stimulate action to combat desertification at a Russian level, to improve the effectiveness of measures aimed at agreeing National Action Programmes and to draft recommendations for creating and implementing a sub-regional, regional and joint Action Programme for Russian conditions in line with the United Nations Convention. The President's idea has been warmly welcomed in the other regions of Russia that are worried about the state of their land.

People have been conscious of their dependence on the land since time immemorial. In ancient Egypt, for example, it was called the gift of the great Nile, in Hellas it was known as woman and mother, while in Russia they called it the mother-provider. Losing soil fertility was equivalent to a national disaster. This is why it is now important to grasp that the first European desert is no longer a myth. It is a reality. If this process is not halted, Europe could share the fate of Africa.

Emma Gabunshina is Minister for the Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources, Republic of Kalmykia.

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