UN Convention to Combat Desertification Began (1996)

On this date in 1996, the world’s nations began implementing the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.  We all grew up learning about the southward spread of Africa’s Sahara Desert, but that “poster-child” representation of desertification is insufficient, at best, and misleading, at worst.

            The world’s concern about desertification began long before 1996.  The UN first developed a plan to fight desertification in 1977, but a later analysis showed that conditions had only gotten worse since then.  So, at the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development, participants ordered the UN to get serious about fighting unsustainable land-use changes, and in 1994 the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was passed, to take effect when the 50th country ratified it.  That occurred on December 26, 1996.

            The UNCCD defines desertification as the degradation of drylands.  The spread of deserts is one dimension of the problem, but loss of productivity in a range of other drylands is the real culprit—and target.  Drylands are defined as deserts (6.6% of global land coverage), arid lands (10.6%), semi-arid lands (15.2%) and dry sub-humid lands (8.7%).  Altogether, these lands comprise 41.3% of the earth’s surface (without deserts, that’s about one-third of the earth).  Dryland covers about two-thirds of Africa and 70% of India.

Desertification affects nearly 1 billion people around the world, mostly in the poorest countries (photo by LeoNunes)

            And big chunks of the world’s dryland are suffering, about 25 million new acres annually.  The causes are many.  Drought, made worse by climate change, is a primary cause of desertification in the driest regions of the world (much of northern Africa).  Irrigation is used on a majority of dryland crops, but inappropriate irrigation (too much or using salt-laden water) can cause salt to build up in soils, thereby reducing productivity.  This is a major issue in India, which today is experiencing the most dramatic degradation of its cropland productivity.

            Overgrazing and overharvest of fuel wood also spur land degradation, as soil looses plant cover that once slowed erosion.  Vast dryland areas that once grew perennial grasslands have been turned into agricultural lands growing annual crops.  The loss of year-round ground cover increases erosion, reduces soil moisture and generally reduces production.  Because these trends occur largely in the world’s poorest countries, nearly one billion people are at risk of early death from famine, infant mortality and other factors.  Biodiversity loss is also a concern, but little is known about the overall biodiversity in dryland ecosystems.

Over-use of drylands, including overgrazing, is a human-caused problem (photo by Lichinga)

            The UNCCD is the world’s strongest tool with which to fight desertification.  It is a legal treaty, signed by 197 parties (including the U.S.).  The approach to fighting the problem is a commitment to “land-degradation neutrality” by 2030, as prescribed in the UN’s sustainable Development Goals (specifically, goal 15.3).  This means that any losses in dryland productivity will be balanced by gains on other lands.  So, fighting desertification means stopping loss, but also improving the conditions of all lands.  More than 120 countries have committed to setting targets to achieve land-degradation neutrality so far (the U.S. is not one). This approach requires developing and implementing technical improvements to combat all the specific causes, but more importantly

connecting people with the landscape to develop community-based solutions that pay attention to local conditions and opportunities.

            So, when you think about desertification in the future, don’t just think about encroaching deserts.  Think about—and act to reverse—the degradation of nearly one-third of the earth’s dryland surface.  And, for that matter, productivity losses wherever they occur.

References:

DownToEarth.com.  2019.  Desertification setting in across a quarter of India.  Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/environment/desertification-setting-in-across-a-quarter-of-india-66407. Accessed January 13, 2020.

Physics.org. 2018. New World Atlas of Desertification shows unprecedented pressure on planet’s resources.  Available at:  https://phys.org/news/2018-06-world-atlas-desertification-unprecedented-pressure.html. Accessed January 13, 2020.

Rafferty, John P. and Stuart L. Pimm.  Desertification.  Encyclopedia Britannica.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/science/desertification/Rain-fed-croplands. Accessed January 13, 2020.

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.  About the Convention.  Available at:  https://www.unccd.int/convention/about-convention.  Accessed January 13, 2020.

United Nations.  United Nations Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification.  Available at:  https://www.un.org/en/events/desertification_decade/whynow.shtml. Accessed January 13, 2020.

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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