Desertification - an ugly
word for an ugly process, which
is stripping away the very flesh of our planet.
  ll land-based life depends on the fragile crust of soil that coats the continents. Without it, there would be no crops, no plants, no forests, no animals - and no people. It is agonizingly slow to form, but can be destroyed frighteningly fast. Building up just a few centimetres of soil can take centuries. But misuse it, and it can be gone in a few seasons.

Once it is lost it is effectively gone forever. Air and water pollution can be cleaned up. Oxygen is replenished by natural processes. Water comes back with the rain. But soil that has been eroded away will not be restored in anything less than many generations.

And yet this is happening across a third of the entire landmass of the planet. Every year it makes 12 million hectares of land - an area about the same size as Liberia or the state of Mississippi - totally useless for cultivation, and much more is so impoverished that it is no longer economically worth farming or grazing. Every year, together with drought, it costs the world a massive estimated $42 billion in lost production.

It blights most of the world's drylands, which make up two fifths of the Earth's land surface and contain roughly the same proportion of its cultivated land. And it threatens the health and livelihoods of more than half their people. 'Given the size of the population in drylands, the number of people affected by desertification is likely larger than for any other contemporary environmental problem,' says a report by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year global study by 1,300 experts from 95 countries.

Over 135 million people - equivalent to the populations of France, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands combined - face being driven from their homes and becoming environmental refugees. Desertification plays a part in political instability, social breakdown and the eruption of armed conflicts.

Africa, where nearly three quarters of the drylands are already seriously affected, is the worst hit: over half the land in 10 northern states of Nigeria is affected, as is four fifths of Kenya. Asia, which could lose a third of its arable land, has the most people at risk: desertification threatens the livelihoods of millions in China, for example, and costs the country a staggering $6.5 billion a year. Much of Latin America is also badly hit.

But this crisis affects rich countries as well as developing ones. Some 100 million hectares of Europe's farmland have been degraded, with Spain among the most affected countries. Australia has one of the world's worst land degradation problems, and the prairies of North America - which export food to over 100 countries - are also at risk. In all, some 110 countries, most of the nations on Earth, are affected by desertification to some degree.

Sometimes the problem is one of expanding deserts. More often it erupts like a skin disease, with patches of severely degraded land developing sometimes thousands of kilometres away from the nearest desert: gradually these patches spread and merge, creating desert-like conditions.

There are four main causes. Overcultivation drains the soil of nutrients, starving crops. Overgrazing - by some 3 billion cattle, sheep and goats - strips the soil of its vegetation, and leaves it exposed to the winds and rain that erode it. Deforestation robs land of the trees whose roots hold the soil together and which channel rainwater down to the soil, again exposing it to erosion. And poor irrigation can cause soil to waterlog and grow too salty to use.

Ten years ago, the world started implementing a global agreement to tackle the problem - the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the only internationally recognized, legally binding treaty addressing land degradation in the drylands. No fewer than 191 countries have joined it.

It obliges countries to adopt action plans, and - unusually - embraces a grassroots approach, insisting that local people should be fully involved in working out what to do. In the past they have often been ignored, or blamed for causing the crisis. But they have had little say in determining their fate; they have been among the most powerless people on the planet, often marginalized in their own countries, often from ethnic minorities, almost always with little political influence. And poverty usually gives them no choice but to try to get as much out of the land as they can to feed their families in the short term, even at the cost of their long-term futures.

But despite the Convention's universal support and revolutionary approach, not nearly enough has been done to put it into practice. Hama Arba Diallo, the Convention's Executive Secretary, says: 'The issue still fails to receive the recognition it deserves.'

So the United Nations has designated 2006 as the International Year of Deserts and Desertification to remind the world of the problem. UNEP is devoting its worldwide World Environment Day celebrations to the same cause. Conferences and summits are being held. A five-day film festival - called Desert Nights - is to take place in Rome. There will even be special football matches organized by Hristo Stoitchkov, the legendary Bulgarian football player, who is one of the official spokespeople for the Year.

It is a timely wake-up call. And it needs to work, for it is high time the world got serious about the loss of its soil, perhaps its most precious resource.


J. Pintassilgo/UNEP/Topham

Carole Hodgson

C. Uthaipanumas/UNEP/Topham

S. Baker/UNEP/Topham

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