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Desertification Threatens One Billion

On Thursday, December 16, 2010, the United Nations launched its Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification (UNDDD).

The initiative is retroactive, running from January of 2010 to December of 2020, and aims at increasing global awareness of the nearly one billion humans in 100 countries who are either already suffering from, or beginning to be afflicted by, intense desertification.

These parched, cracked and sterile lands are home to one out of every three people on earth. Unfortunately, it is largely human activity that has created them. Fortunately, the entities cooperating to change the situation – the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) – believe that “A decade is time enough for change.”

It seems unexpectedly optimistic, but the organization, based in London, has reportedly garnered enough climate experts, activists and policy makers to make, if not a change, at least a considerable shift in the way underdeveloped nations – those most afflicted – manage their land and water resources to prevent intense desertification.

Can that even be done? Isn’t desertification a natural consequence of climate change? The answers are “yes”, and “yes”, but the science behind the answers reveals the subtle complexities behind the issues (biodiversity, food production, and energy generation, to name a few) that seem to concentrate in those very places where the people have no defense.

These areas, from China and India to Africa and Central Asia, represent some of the most valuable genetic pools of plant and animal species, going back to antiquity. And these rare pools exist, and must be preserved, alongside wild and cultivated grasses that support half the world’s livestock, and small farmer’s croplands that feed anywhere from one to five families.

These areas now also represent the likely displacement of up to 50 million people by 2020, according to the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security. Another estimate, by the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, says the total could reach as high as 200 million.

Desertification, as one of the four displacement scenarios (sea level rise, disease, more intense storms) highlighted by the IPCC in 2007, could reduce crop yields by up to 40 percent, or up to one-half in areas where crops are dependent on rainfall, by as early as 2020 in some of the poorest African countries.

And, of course, some areas will be hit harder than others, notably Nigeria, whose semi-arid zone falls between the 110th and 140th line of latitude and is always affected by some level of desertification.

Here, experts have put the rate of desertification (desert impingement into semi-arable land) at 6 kilometers, or 3.7 miles, every year. Extrapolating into the future, most of Nigeria will be desert in a decade. In half a century, the country – as a section of land supporting human habitation- will be gone. Unless measures are taken at grassroots level and beyond to change current food cultivation practices.

Until such changes can be made (for example, raising indigenous food crops), the real conflict is between the needs of humans and the needs of Nature. And conflict resolution requires engaging each and every African farmer in the debate about how much is needed, in terms of food.

However, the problem is not as insurmountable as it seems. According to Johannes Kamp, a member of RSPB (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), industrialized farming is the real culprit in desertification, impacting what are clearly fragile ecosystems with water, nutrient and pesticide needs that not only overwhelm the existing biosphere, but eventually pollute it so badly it is useless to everyone and everything.

This is why the local food movement is so important, not only to our regional welfare, wherever we live, but to the survival of people we will likely never see, because the practice of growing lettuce or pineapple in Nigeria by giant food corporations is unconscionable. The Nigerians not only don’t eat the lettuce or pineapple, but the food they would eat (if they had land to grow it) is displaced – as are they, eventually until the nation itself is lost.

Or, as Lester Brown notes in his article (adapted from Chapter 2 of his book, “Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” and reprinted in Celsias), “During this century we must deal with the effects of trends—rapid population growth, advancing deserts, and rising seas—that we set in motion during the last century. Our choice is a simple one: reverse these trends or risk being overwhelmed by them.”

And one of the most insidious and life-threatening of those trends is allowing corporations to mass-produce food on marginal lands needed by indigenous people.

So the next time you are in the grocery store, check the label. If it isn’t grown where you live – if not in the same area, at least in the same nation – give it a pass. You will literally be saving a life.

Article by Jeanne Roberts, appearing courtesy Celsias.