Albion Monitor /News

Growing Deserts Claim Half-Million Sq Miles

by Ramesh Jaura

(IPS) ROME -- Nearly 130 million hectares worldwide -- more than 500,000 square miles, or about the area of France, Italy, and Spain combined -- has been "lost" forever due to degradation and can no longer be used for food production, according to the new World Atlas of Desertification.

The atlas was launched today by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) during the first conference of parties to the convention to combat desertification that ended Friday in Rome.

New data show that desertification directly affects, or puts at risk, the livelihoods of over a billion people who are directly dependent on the land for their survival, Dowdeswell said.

No doubt that poverty and food security in particular had a major impact
Desertification -- the degradation of productive drylands -- is not just a problem of Africa, she added.

According to the atlas, the Great Plains and the Pampas of the Americas, the Steppes of Asia, the outback of Australia, and the margins of the Mediterranean are also affected by desertification.

The atlas summarizes the current state of scientific knowledge on the drylands of the globe. It clearly shows that desertification is one of the world's most pressing environmental problems, and that it is a global issue which is accelerating.

The global extent of the problem of desertification was indicated in the first edition of UNEP's World Atlas in 1992, in time for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The second edition is purported to facilitate activities to combat desertification.

Agenda 21 emerging from Rio included a chapter on "Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Combating Desertification and Drought." It also recommended the establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee to prepare a convention to combat desertification, which took effect in December 1996.

Franklin G. Cardy, UNEP's executive coordinator for natural resources and director land told IPS that efforts to improve, the assessment and monitoring of desertification had continued since the first edition of the atlas was published.

The new edition has been extensively revised and expanded to cover related environmental issues, including concerns surrounding biodiversity, climate change and the availability of water, he added.

Cardy said the atlas left no doubt that social and economic conditions in general and poverty and food security in particular also had a major impact on the progress and control of desertification.

In the forward to the atlas, Cardy says that land degradation is an important reason for the steady decline in rural income resulting in a complex of demographic, economic and social changes.

The process also affects all those who depend on the land as a basic resource, whether for crops, livestock or firewood.

The reason, he says, is that economic and political forces have encouraged new forms of unsustainable resource use in more recent times.

Cardy sees the key to success in the battle against desertification in the availability of adequate financing with total commitment at the political level and at all levels of government and society.

"If the appropriate level of commitment and financing existed, the problem could be overcome everywhere," Cardy told IPS.

Trends in degradation and impact of degradation on agricultural productivity
A significant conclusion that emerged during the preparation of the second edition of the World Atlas of Desertification was the need to continue with the new ASSOD approach towards completion of a new global assessment, possibly by the year 2002, ten years after the Earth Summit in Rio, he added.

Several data sets are used in the compilation of the atlas. These include a Global Soil Degradation Database, a soils degradation database for continental Africa, a global climatic database and a more refined Soil Degradation Database that has been developed in Asia.

In the evaluation of Asia, which was hardly covered in the first edition of the atlas, greater emphasis has been given to generating assessments at country level rather than at regional level. Emphasis is also given to trends in degradation and to the impact of degradation on agricultural productivity.

The new atlas also highlights success stories in combating desertification ranging from soil rehabilitation in northwestern China to overcoming waterlogging and salinity in western Australia and the continuing challenges of the African Sahel region.

The atlas also describes a new global initiative called the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT) giving eastern and southern Africa as examples.

The WOCAT case studies give information on severity of erosion, dominant soil and water conservation techniques and the impact of the conservation technologies as cropland and grazing areas.

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Albion Monitor October 13, 1997 (

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