J.L. Perret/UNEP/Topham  

Is it true that several millennia ago the Sahara desert was a fertile savannah?

The Sahara is 2.5 million years old, and people have lived on its edge for more than 100,000 years. During the last ice age it was a much wetter place, but by 2500 BC it was as dry as it is today.

Why would anyone want to live in deserts? What can we learn from the people who do?

Most people do not choose where they live, and most of the world's poor have few, or no, options to improve their daily lives. Those living in drylands - 90 per cent of them in developing countries - lag far behind the rest of the world in well-being and development. But there is much to be learned from how they are coping with, and in some cases improving, their difficult environments.

Is desertification a global concern? Why should people living far from drylands care about it?

All of the Earth's people should be concerned with desertification, which affects one third of its land and causes food insecurity, famine and poverty. Social, economic and political tensions arising from it can create conflicts, deepen poverty and intensify land degradation even more. As it increases, it threatens to deprive many millions of their homes and livelihoods.

Looking at the question from another angle, dust blown from the Sahara desert has been implicated in respiratory problems as far away as North America and has affected the Caribbean coral reefs. Storms in the Gobi desert affect much of China, Korea and Japan and cause fever, coughing and sore eyes.

Jian Ming Wang/UNEP/Topham


Is it technically, biologically, or scientifically possible to halt and reverse the spread of deserts?

Various techniques for stabilizing the sands have proved effective. They include:
• Erecting sand fences in the path of the prevailing wind. This halts the movement of sand, and produces an artificial dune to protect the area from further movement.
• Placing large boulders works in a similar way, providing an 'anchor' for the sand to build up against.
• Spraying petroleum, or other material that can evenly cover the sand - a process often called the 'mulch' technique - can stop it moving.
• Planting trees can stabilize the land. But there is some concern that their demand for water could have a detrimental effect.

How will the International Year of Deserts and Desertification (IYDD) help the world to tackle the problem of desertification?

The IYDD will help to raise awareness of deserts and of the problems of desertification. It will highlight both the causes of degradation and the measures that can be taken. Among other initiatives, this year's World Environment Day (WED 2006) will focus on the Year's priorities, with activities around the world. These efforts will help people not only to think about the issue but to take action, and we hope that you will do the same.

What can young people do to help tackle desertification?

Young people all over the world can play a crucial role in the fight against desertification. They should join (or even form) an environmental organization, through which they can learn about deserts and desertification and raise awareness of them. Use the IYDD to organize discussions, exhibitions, public-awareness campaigns and other activities to increase knowledge and action on the issue - and take the lead.

Do you have any QUESTIONS on environmental issues that you would like the experts at UNEP to answer?
Please send them to uneppub@unep.org, and we will try to answer them in future issues.
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