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Deserts Advancing Around World Despite Efforts To Slow Sands

by Julia Spurzem

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(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- More than 250 million people are directly affected by desertification, a process that has accelerated in recent years due to climate change and unsustainable human activities.

In a bid to make more people aware of this problem, which fuels poverty and famine, the United Nations has proclaimed 2006 the "International Year for Deserts and Desertification."

"We want to raise awareness at the international, regional, national and local level about the deserts," said Cherif Rahmani, UN ambassador for the project. "Desertification is a transnational issue and a global problem."

Desertification drives migration, poverty and famine. In Africa, more than 10 million people have been displaced in the past 20 years because of the spread of deserts. Every year, between 700,000 and 900,000 Mexicans leave their dryland homes to seek a living in the United States.

At a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, last month, African governments and donors announced an ambitious alliance to fight desertification. The so-called Terrafrica partnership aims to raise at least $4 billion over the next 12 years to improve the sharing of ideas about how best to combat land degradation.

Karen Brooks, the World Bank's Africa regional manager, said the project would be administered initially by the World Bank and made available thorough a trust fund to be established by donors.

About one-fifth of the earth's surface is covered by deserts, although the greatest impact can be seen in Africa, where two-thirds of the continent is desert or dryland.

Famine typically occurs in areas that also suffer from poverty, civil unrest or war. Drought and land degradation often help to trigger a crisis which is then made worse by poor food distribution and the inability to buy what is available.

"We may miss the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) if we do not tackle the problem of the desert," said Rahmani.

The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, reduction of child mortality by two-thirds, cutback in maternal mortality by three-quarters, the promotion of gender equality, environmental sustainability, the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and a global partnership for development between the rich and the poor.

To slow the pace of desertification, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), established in 1994 following the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, wants people to understand that overuse of land today will have a serious impact in years to come.

"Looking at the future, there is a problem of productivity of resources. They are being overused. There will be a problem for future generations," said Rahmani.

The European Space Agency (ESA) recently launched a project to track desertification in Europe, where 30 million hectares of land bordering the Mediterranean are affected, potentially threatening the livelihoods of 16.5 million people.

Called DesertWatch, it uses satellites to assess and monitor desertification and its trends over time.

According to ESA, dryland desertification can be remedied or even reversed, provided information is available on what areas are most at risk. Satellite images can highlight relevant land use change along with increased surface reflectivity, temperature, dryness and dustiness. Infrared sensors can detect vegetation stress due to environmental shifts.

The most commonly cited forms of unsustainable land use are overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices. Seventy percent of the world's drylands (excluding hyper-arid deserts), or some 3,600 million hectares, are degraded.

While DesertWatch is for the moment focused on the Northern Mediterranean, the potential exists for the same approach to be used more widely in support of UNCCD activities.

Experts say that the relatively low priority given to environmental protection often leads to poor land-management situations. "The problem with the desert is not just mechanical, physical. It's not just erosion of the soil and it's not just a single dimension which we have to tackle, there are economic, political and also cultural aspects," Rahmani said.

He also underlined that the desert areas are not uninhabited, and that "different people, languages and cultures are threatened."

"This year has to make a real contribution to people living in the desert to make them more visible and give them something. One goal is to create tools for desert people. We want to give them an approach in the context of good governance, we allow them to handle the problem, giving them development methods and techniques and that means that we have to update the traditional knowledge to slow down desertification."

The international year, which is supported among others by the Italian government and former soccer-player Hristo Stoichkov from Bulgaria, will be marked by exhibitions, film festivals and conferences.

"This year offers a unique opportunity to speak louder, raise awareness and share lessons learned," said Italy's deputy permanent representative to the UN

Stoichkov also plans to use the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany to publicize the problem. "Desert is not the evil, the evil is desertification," he said.

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Albion Monitor November 9, 2005 (

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