Land degradation – more specifically drought and desertification – have become increasingly pressing problems for a growing number of countries around the world, threatening efforts to alleviate poverty, improve basic health and sanitation and address socioeconomic inequality, as well as spur agricultural and sustainable economic development.
The only multilateral, international agreement linking development and environment to sustainable land management (SLM), high-level representatives from 195 nations will be gathering in Windhoek, Namibia from September 16-27 for the 11th bi-annual Conference of Parties (COP) to review implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Meeting for the first time in southern Africa, UNCCD delegates will review implementation of the convention to date and plan for the ensuing two years of programs and actions.
One of the greatest challenges to sustainable development
Desertification, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity, were singled out as the greatest challenges to sustainable development at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Unfortunately, desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) have accelerated during the 20th and 21st centuries to date, posing fundamental problems and challenges for drylands populations, nations and regions in particular.
Severe land degradation is estimated to be affecting 168 countries around the world, according to a first-of-its-kind cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of the global effects of desertification released during the UNCCD Conference and Committee Meeting held this past April in Bonn, Germany. That's up sharply from 110 as of a previous analysis of data submitted by UNCCD parties in the mid-1990s.
The resulting losses, in lives, human potential, biodiversity and ecosystems health and integrity are alarming. Resulting in the devastation of an area three times that of Switzerland every year, UNCCD analysts estimate that the annual costs of combating land degradation have reached $490 billion...and that's only expected to increase.
Home to some 2 billion people, approximately 40 percent of the Earth's land area is considered drylands. Due to a combination of human activities and natural forces – climate change now prominent among them – 10-20 percent are already considered degraded. The total land area affected by desertification is estimated to range between 6 million and 12 million square kilometers, putting the livelihoods and lives of a billion inhabitants at risk.
In the report, “The Economics of Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought: Methodologies and Analysis for Decision-Making,” UNCCD estimates the costs of land degradation to be between 3-5 percent of global agricultural Gross Domestic Production. Furthermore, “the cost of siltation of water reservoirs is estimated at USD18.5 billion per year, and salinity in global agriculture at about USD12 billion per year.”
Combatting Desertification via Sustainable Land Management
Continual research, development and rapid implementation of sustainable land management practices are the keys to meeting the challenges DLDD poses, according to the UNCCD. Unfortunately, progress in this regard has been slow and halting. Commodities, other products and ecosystem services afforded by land and ecosystems being affected by DLD are not being valued accordingly, nor are government and private sector institutional frameworks geared towards addressing the issue comprehensively or effectively, experts assert.
Posing a fundamental threat to agricultural and broad, sustainable socioeconomic development, crafting and implementing sustainable land management policies cuts across all facets of a society and challenges long, and often strongly held attitudes, values and institutional frameworks. That makes the process of addressing DLDD awkward, cumbersome and difficult, posing varied, substantial and difficult-to-resolve trade-offs and conflicts of interest.
In the midst of carrying out a ten-year strategy to address DLDD and foster development and implementation of sustainable land management policies and practices, the UNCCD is marshaling the resources of member nations in an effort to combat DLDD through sustainable land management. Part and parcel of this global initiative, UNCCD is identifying, helping develop, implement and sharing effective policies and best practices.
“SLM and ecosystem restoration are the key to enhancing the resilience of systems that are vulnerable to DLDD,” the UNCCD CBA report authors state. “Effective policies need to be based on a good understanding of the challenges faced on the ground.
“Generally speaking, policies that have successfully addressed a transition to more sustainable land-use practices have used participatory approaches, responded to local perceptions and priorities, enjoyed adequate government and civil society backing, and promoted technical packages with low risk and strong economic incentives.”
Furthermore, they go on, “Addressing weak governance and policy-induced distortions that operate through markets to promote land-degrading activities are arguably amongst the most efficient means of tackling land degradation in developing countries.
“Lastly, given a rising global demand for commodities built on an unsustainable price signal (e.g. wheat price speculations) that converts natural capital for free to provide food, fiber, fodder and fuel, finance must become more accountable for its impact on nature, creating opportunities for change.”
Image credit: iJuliAn, courtesy flickr