Desertification and the global sustainability challenges

June 04, 2018

It is not just about the expansion of existing deserts. The term desertification refers to the soil degradation that affects arid and semi-arid areas in particular, those areas known as 'drylands'. The United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) defines them as “areas characterized by a scarcity of water, which affects both natural and managed ecosystems and constrains the production of livestock as well as crops”. These fragile ecosystems are particularly sensitive to external modification, and human activity and climate change have already caused great soil degradation, which today affects 30 per cent of total lands. 

The root causes of the problem 
Deforestation, non sustainable irrigation, intensive farming, excessive exploitation can all undermine the productivity of the land. Human activity is in fact one of the key factors behind desertification, which is more likely to occur in those areas where trees and vegetation are cut to make room for crops, or to keep livestock, which impoverishes the land by eating all vegetation, or where soil nutrients are reduced by intensive farming practices. In these lands made fragile by human intervention, wind and water erosion, in addition to the effects of climate change, make the situation ever more complex. The great water crises that affect the planet with increasing frequency, as a consequence of global warming, add to the problem of desertification, whose impact goes well beyond the availability of arable land. One single year of drought may cause a population to waste decades of social achievements, and may provoke wars that tend to affect the most vulnerable and poor members of society. Last but not least, the increase in world population may also contribute to desertification, since more and more frequently land is taken from forests and used for farming to cater for the needs of the growing population, or the available water resources are exploited in excessive and non-sustainable ways. 

It is not just a modern-day issue: desertification and soil degradation have always existed, but they are currently progressing more than 30 times faster than the past. Nearly two billion people today depend on ecosystems that are in drylands, areas at risk of desertification, and 90 per cent of these people live in developing countries. Even though this phenomenon is geographically concentrated in a few areas, its consequences extend to all five continents, touching several aspects of human welfare and the health of our planet. For example, when it comes to food security, we see that desertification and drought cause the loss of 12 million hectares of arable land every year, which is equivalent to losing nearly 20 million tons of cereal crops. Clearly an unsustainable situation, in a context where food production should actually increase by 70 per cent by 2050, if we are to feed the entire world population. Desertification also means economic loss: a recent survey suggests that soil degradation may cause a country to lose 9 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), or as much as 40 per cent in the worst affected areas, such as the Central African Republic. Also, we should not forget the close link between desertification and migration, as demonstrated by the report published by BCFN and Macrogeo. Migration flows are on the increase, and a significant percentage of them is actually linked to climate change and the loss of productivity in some areas: 135 million people may be forced to migrate by 2045 because of desertification.

Acting against desertification
During the first Head of State Conference on the Environment, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, desertification was already named as one of the key challenges to sustainable development, together with loss of biodiversity and climate change. A focus on this problem has remained to this day, as demonstrated by the fact that one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals - Number 15 - is dedicated to 'Life on Earth'. Indeed, point 15.3 recites: "By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world". Land degradation neutrality (LDN) is defined as “A state whereby the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases”. This is the definition provided by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), set up in 1994 and still to date the only international agreement devoted to the link between environment, development and sustainable land management. In addition to its focus on key land and soil issues, the UNCCD is also committed to practical projects, engaging the various actors involved and helping countries identify local targets for achieving LDN, by means of its LDN Target Setting Programme (LDN TSP).