UN: Policymakers must rethink desertification

Satellite images of sand dunes encroaching on Nouakchott in Mauritania Copyright: NASA

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[BEIJING] A new policy report from the United Nations University (UNU) urges governments to adopt a more coordinated approach to desertification.

The report, ‘Rethinking Policies to Cope with Desertification’, was presented today (28 June) at the United Nations headquarters in New York, United States and is based on the input of 200 experts from 25 countries.

Desertification — land degradation in arid and semi-arid areas — is a pressing global environmental challenge, currently affecting an estimated 100-200 million people. One-third of all people on Earth — about 2 billion in number — are potential victims.

Desertification could bring about mass migration as people are forced to leave lands that can no longer support them, posing an “imminent threat to international stability”, according to the report’s authors.

The number of people at risk of displacement is 50 million over the next ten years.

“Addressing desertification is a critical and essential part of adaptation to climate change and mitigation of global biodiversity losses,” said Hans van Ginkel, UN under-secretary-general and rector of the United Nations University, in the foreword of the report.

But according to the report, the global community has failed to address desertification because policies have been made in isolation by different environmental conventions, aid efforts, countries and even ministries within one country, and contain many inconsistencies.

The report urges better coordination at national, regional and international levels and recommends that land-use policies are changed to combat factors such as unsustainable irrigation and overgrazing.

Educating and providing incentives for land-users to safeguard against desertification and establishing alternative livelihoods for dryland communities are also advised.

The report urges more scientific research into desertification, as policy formulation “has been hindered by the lack of concrete data about rates and extent of desertification,” according to Zafar Adeel, lead author of the report and director of the UNU’s Canada-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health.

The report also calls for more work to explore the links between desertification, climate change and biodiversity, such as carbon sequestration — the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with plant growing — in drylands to help reverse climate change and simultaneously combat desertification.

Jiang Gaoming, an ecology expert at the Institute of Botany, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told SciDev.Net that the recommendations point policymakers in the right direction.

Jiang, who contributed to the report, says that planting trees to fight desertification has been a priority in China, but a lack of coordination between Chinese agencies such as the State Forestry Administration and other ministries, has hindered this approach.