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It’s a Dry World, Literally
Desertification of World’s arable land poses a Great Threat to Human Civilization, and Coordinated Action is a must

By the year 1994, when the UN General Assembly declared ‘June 17’ as the “World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought,” one-third of the earth was converted into desert. Shockingly, desertification of the world’s arable land since decades has been slowly and steadily threatening and endangering livelihoods of millions of inhabitants, benefitted by relative ignominy in the minds of global leadership. It first came to public notice during 1968-1974, when the great Sahelian drought and famine in Africa killed 2,00,000 people and millions of their animals. This forced UN to initiate actions to combat desertification, particularly in Africa.

UN responded and addressed the issue of desertification of arable land on a global scale 34 years ago in 1977, by organising the first international conference in Nairobi, Kenya to promote public awareness and the implementation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Since then, efforts have been taken up globally as well as by nations individually, yet fertile dry lands have been continuously becoming deserts at an alarming clip.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has indicated a serious threat from desertification. Horrifyingly, according to the US Bureau of Land Management study, over 40% of continental American land is at risk of desertification. Over the last five decades, over 1.2 billion hectares of land – equivalent to the area of China and India combined, has experienced soil deterioration in developing countries. Another research by the journal of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that measured the degradation of the planet’s soil concluded that 38% of the world is made up of arid regions at risk of desertification. What is more shocking is that more than 20,000 square miles of land worldwide is getting converted into desert land annually.

This poses the greatest danger to inhabitants as well as to ecology. UNEP has estimated that the livelihoods of over 1 billion people are in danger in over 100 countries, due to arable lands transforming into deserts. Gradual desertification is forcing thousands of people from Africa to migrate to Europe. Researches show that a prime reason for Mexicans to migrate to US is that their dry lands are fast turning into deserts. Over 16.66% of the population of Mali and Burkina Faso has already been displaced due to desertification. Moreover, the economic impact is huge. As per UNEP, it costs the world around $42 billion every year. Desertification in the poorest continent Africa costs some $9 billion per year and a whopping $21 billion per year in Asia. It costs some $5 billion in North America, $3 billion each in Australia & South America and $1 billion in Europe.
Another research by US Department of Agriculture has found that “over 7.1 million square km of land is under low risk of human-induced desertification, 8.6 million square km is at moderate risk, 15.6 million square km is at high risk and 11.9 million square km is at very high risk.” US DoA terms different levels as Desertification Tension Zones (DTZ). High risk DTZs require immediate attention.

India, like other developing nations, is at a high risk of desertification. One of its richest states Gujarat is at maximum risk. The Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Space Applications Centre (SAC) in Ahmedabad concluded a study, which indicated that over 68% of Gujarat’s total geographical area is vulnerable to desertification. It’s further indicated that there has been a substantial increase of dry land from 50% of India’s geographical area to 69% in 2010. India still doesn’t have concrete policy measures in place yet to fight desertification. Likewise, the sting is being felt in a number of other countries. According to the Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, the risk is highest in North Africa, countries of the Middle East, Australia, South West China and the western edge of South America.

As the world’s population is on the rise, food scarcity and rising prices are equally growing as a global concern. The World Bank estimates that high prices had pushed 44 million people into poverty since June last year. Even though there is a gross increase in farm output, protection of existing arable land is a must from a futuristic perspective. Worldwide, dry lands are suitable for agriculture, but these are at high risk of desertification. UNEP estimates that “an effective 20-year global effort would cost $10-22 billion per year,” which is very low compared to the actual cost of desertification, estimated at around $44 billion. Of course, the causes are linked to both climate change and human activity. Policies and practices leading to excessive and untethered exploitation of dry lands is a major concern. The world must look at slowing the pace of desertification through better farming practices and also encouraging rampant afforestation and ecosystem preservation. Poverty is also linked to increased land exploitation, and reducing it is strongly linked to better land use. Otherwise, we have got ourselves one more way to end the world!

By:- Akram Hoque

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