Desertification could create more than 135 million refugees, as droughts become more frequent and climate change makes water increasingly scarce in dryland regions, warn UN experts.
Warnings of forced migration will be key at the international conference on desertification and policy in Algeria next week (17-19 December) — an issue which particularly concerns North Africa, the United States and southern Europe.
"Migration is a top-of-mind political issue in many countries. We are at the beginning of an unavoidably long process," said Janos Bogardi, director of the United Nations University's Institute for Environment and Human Security.
Drylands are home to one third of the world's population, but they contain only eight per cent of global freshwater resources.
More people are uprooted for environmental reasons than for political or economic factors, Bogardi added.
This is set to worsen as livelihoods deteriorate and climate extremes become increasingly frequent and severe, said Zafar Adeel, director of the United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health.
2006 is the International Year of Deserts and Desertification, organised by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to increase funding and raise awareness of the hardships for one billion people upwards who live in dry regions.
The year, marked by international conferences and various events to highlight the issue, saw international donors agree to raise funds for land degradation projects by US$50 million to US$300 million for the period 2007 to 2010.
An additional US$250 million will be available to land degradation projects that would otherwise fall in the category of climate change or biodiversity, they agreed at a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, in August.
But the year was also an opportunity to give a much-needed credibility boost to the UNCCD, which has been criticised for the way it is run as well as for its views.
Many of its 191 member states and prominent individuals in the scientific community doubt the need for the agency, and its effectiveness.
Equally controversial is the issue of science. The UNCCD is clear in its belief that land degradation is increasing and that it this is fully human-induced. Many scientists, however, do not support this view, particularly some of the authors of the UN Environment Programme's Global Deserts Outlook report.Following a meeting organised in November in New York, United States, the UNCCD agreed to better publicise its work and link it with climate change issues, which benefit from stronger media interest, as well as to national security, especially to the problems of environmental migrants and refugees.