A Burkinabe man from the village of Selbo village, in northern Burkina Faso, gestures near grass he planted to help stop the advance of the Sahara desert. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
Severe land degradation is now affecting 168 countries across the world, according to new research released by the UN Desertification Convention (UNCCD).
The figure, based on submissions from countries to the UN, is a marked increase on the last analysis in the mid-1990s, which estimated 110 states were at risk.
In an economic analysis published last week the Convention also warns land degradation is now costing US$490 billion per year and wiping out an area three times the size of Switzerland on an annual basis.
“Land degradation and drought are impeding the development of all nations in the world,” UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja told RTCC.
“This is a challenge that is causing governments to take this issue seriously, but how do you get them to take it seriously? By showing them the rate of return on restoring degraded land is one of the smartest investments of our time.
He added: “Desertification, land degradation and drought is an issue of market failure. The lack of economic market valuation has led to land being perceived as a cheap resource.”
The causes of land degradation are varied, but are widely attributed to drought, climate change, intensive farming practices and poor water management.
Desertification is low on many countries’ radar – illustrated by Canada’s recent withdrawal from the UNCCD – but its links to climate change and food security are starting to resonate with governments and business, particularly given fears over the world’s ability to feed a soaring population.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts demand for food will increase 60% by 2050. Experts say the world will need an additional 120 million hectares of agricultural land to support the required food production – that is a new farm the size of South Africa.
Meanwhile recent studies by the UK Met Office and USAID have linked the severe drought that hit East Africa in 2011 and falling rice yields in South East Asia to man-made climate change.
Since 2000, the prices of staples such as of meat, dairy, cereals and sugar have doubled, reflecting a lack of elasticity in the food market’s supply chain.
Efforts to boost agricultural production often lead to deforestation, a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.
This has a knock on effect in terms of reducing the planet’s store of natural carbon sinks and destroying the ‘ecosystem services’ trees provide such as water storage, exacerbating the problem.
The UNCCD hopes to adopt a ‘Zero Net Land Degradation by 2030′ resolution at its 2013 Conference of the Parties in Namibia later this year, and there are signs sustainable land management could form one of the Sustainable Development Goals set to be announced in 2015.
Last week former Finland President Tarja Halonen, now Chairman of the UN Global Sustainability Panel, indicated that the links between rural poverty, famine and land management should “guide the work” on those new set of targets.
“Sustainable land management, prevention of land degradation and rehabilitation of land is the most cost effective and cost beneficial ways to eradicate rural poverty,” she added.
In Africa alone a UNCCD expert panel estimates 4-12% of agricultural GDP is lost due to deteriorating environmental conditions, contributing to the high levels of chronic hunger and conflict on the continent.
This situation is acute in Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, where the combination of weak governments and a lack of annual rains linked to climate change are driving desertification levels.
In China over 400 million people are affected by soil erosion, causing annual economic losses of US$10 billion, while the UNCCD says Indian reports of degradation have increased “by a factor of six”.
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