Climate Change

800 million affected by desertification: UN secretary-general

Over the next 25 years, land degradation could reduce global food productivity by as much as 12 per cent, the UN chief said on World Day to Combat Desertification

By DTE Staff
Published: Monday 20 June 2016

Desertification is a global threat that requires global action

Nearly 800 million people are chronically undernourished as a direct consequence of land degradation, declining soil fertility, unsustainable water use, drought and biodiversity loss, requiring long-term solutions to help communities increase resilience to climate change, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon declared today.

“The livelihoods and well-being of hundreds of millions of people are at stake,” the Secretary-General said in his message to mark the World Day to Combat Desertification, marked every year on June 17. The theme for the day this year was 'Protect Earth. Restore land. Engage people.'

“Over the next 25 years, land degradation could reduce global food productivity by as much as 12 per cent, leading to a 30 per cent increase in world food prices,” he added.

Ranking among the greatest environmental challenges of our time, desertification is a phenomenon that refers to the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by human activities – including unsustainable farming, mining, overgrazing and clear-cutting of land – and by climate change.

The day is intended to promote public awareness of the issues of desertification and drought, and the implementation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in those countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification.

In his message, the Secretary-General emphasized that more than 50 per cent of agricultural land is moderately or severely degraded, with 12 million hectares lost to production each year.

“Desertification, land degradation, drought and climate change are interconnected. As a result of land degradation and climate change, the severity and frequency of droughts have been increasing, along with floods and extreme temperatures,” he said.

The secretary-general emphasised that without a long-term solution, desertification and land degradation will not only affect food supply but lead to increased migration and threaten the stability of many nations and regions.

“This is why world leaders made land degradation neutrality one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. That means rehabilitating at least 12 million hectares of degraded land a year,” he said.

One important approach towards achieving that goal is sustainable, climate-smart agriculture, Ban said. That will help communities build resilience to climate change, while also supporting mitigation by taking carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back in the soil.

“The transition to sustainable agriculture will also alleviate poverty and generate employment, especially among the world's poorest. By 2050, it could create some 200 million jobs across the entire food production system,” the UN chief said.

Irina Bokova, the director-general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), underscored that desertification is a threat to both arid and non-arid regions, where land over-exploitation, including intensive farming, forest exploitation for fuel and timber and overgrazing have turned fertile soils into sterile land.

“Extreme weather events – like droughts, winds, floods and climate disruptions – are amplifying the effects and adding new causes to the degradation cycle,” said Bokova.

The director-general highlighted that the various UNESCO programmes are working to engage people in sustainable land management practices and agro-forestry, in developing green economies, in consuming responsibly, and in restoring ecosystems.

“Desertification is not always irreversible. Land restoration is the ultimate tool, and UNESCO is determined to do everything to restore our ecosystems, as was featured during the World Congress of Biosphere Reserves, held in Lima, in March 2016,” Bokova said.

“Desertification is a global threat that requires global action – this must start with each of us, with our deeper engagement to protecting our planet for all to share,” she added.

UNCCD Executive Secretary Monique Barbut also emphasised that land degradation neutrality should be a top policy goal for all nations.

“Conserving land and restoring that which is degraded back to health is not a benefit that only flows to the billions of people who eke out a living directly from the land,” Barbut said.

The executive secretary also noted that the inclination to degrade new land instead of fixing and re-using the land that is already degraded means that future generations cannot benefit from the same resources.

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