Desertification costs US$ 42 billions per year

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Temps de lecture : 4 minutes  

This year, the UNCDD launchs the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification. Read this interview with Mr Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertificatio.

To start with, which areas are most threatened by desertification today?

The term desertification refers to the degradation of land that has dried up due to several factors in arid, semi-arid and subhumid areas. Indeed, this drying up is often the consequence of inappropriate agricultural and pastoral practices that reduce vegetation cover, cause soil erosion and reduce soil productivity. This process is worsened by climate phenomena like droughts, sandstorms and/or intense rains followed by floods etc which increase hydric stress and erosion. The degradation of the world’s arid areas often creates desert conditions.

In terms of the surface area that is affected, Africa is the continent hardest hit by desertification: only 11% of the continent is really humid and ¾ of farmland undergoes degradation. In terms of population, Asia is the most affected. Most of the countries that are affected are developing countries.

On a world scale, an assessment of the land that was degraded from 1981-2006 (Cf. GLADA Report, ISRIC 2008) showed that 24% of land was degraded during those 25 years. This represents a rate of 1% of land a year. About 1.5 billion people depend directly on these degraded areas.

What are the consequences ?

The degraded land is mainly agricultural or pastoral. It was estimated that the annual loss of revenue directly linked to desertification was 42 billion $US (expressed in 1990 USD). This estimate only accounts for some of the resulting socioeconomic costs. In arid areas, this loss of revenue affects the daily life of a billion people who live below the poverty line.

What is the biggest challenge the UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertificationà will have to face in coming years ?

There are a lot of challenges but the two main ones facing soil and soil quality are linked to food security and access to water. According to estimates, the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and resources are decreasing. Soil and water are in limited supply. As we cannot increase the quantities of these resources, we must improve how we use them.

The FAO has told us we need to double food production by 2050. We won’t be able to do that by leaving it to the producers in the North to produce food for the whole planet. It is not environmentally, economically or socially desirable. It will only be possible to solve this difficult problem if countries in the South can preserve their essential resources – soil and water – and use them durably to meet their own food needs.

So far, what has been the biggest success in the fight against desertification ?

Between 1981 and 2006, most of the 16% of soil that improved in the world was in arid areas. It is obviously very difficult to determine to what extent the CSFD contributed to this figure.

The biggest successes of the fight against desertification are on a local level, on the ground, thanks to the work of researchers, NGOs and the constant efforts of local populations in the affected areas. These actions and the way information is circulated are indeed its biggest successes. But this is still not enough.

Several local successes show this to be true in areas like Sahel, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger where ‘Regreening of the Sahel’ is being undertaken cf., for example, and Latin America and Asia through programmes and integrated management projects of affected ecosystems and the sustainable management of soil and water.

Why should there be a decade for deserts and the fight against desertification now ?

In the current context of economic and environmental crisis, we must remind rich countries of their responsibilities and their duty of international solidarity towards these populations who are losing their main, or sometimes even their sole means of production : soil !

The threat facing arid areas is also affecting the whole planet more than ever. – Firstly, in terms of world food security. Everyone remembers the 2008 hunger riots. If we want to double food production by 2050, as recommended by the FAO, we have to take arid areas into account : 44% of cultivated systems are in arid areas ; 30% of cultivated plants are now endemic to arid areas and 50% of the world’s livestock is located in arid areas.

Soil is important in the fight against global warming. Soil in arid areas stores 46% of the world’s carbon. The more this soil is degraded, the more this figure decreases.

What results are you expecting from this decade for deserts and the fight against desertification? Do you have concrete examples ?

As it was specified above, the Decade is first and foremost an awareness campaign for the general public and decision-makers. The “absolute” expected result is that by the end of the decade, each ordinary citizen and each decision-maker on Earth will understand the causes and know the solutions for desertification and soil degradation. They will therefore become aware of the situation and take the urgent action needed to fight desertification.

In more concrete terms, the types of actions will be very varied: from scientific conferences, actions on the ground to raise awareness, activities to share knowledge on the right strategies and practices to manage soil sustainably, to the filming and broadcasting of “success story” documentaries. You can see some of them on our site :

Which measures are most effective for dealing with soil degradation ?

From a technical point of view, the best practices to fight against soil degradation are collectively referred to as “land management” or SLM. They are often appropriate techniques. This means that they are adapted to the specific contexts of degraded ecosystems ; in fact, some of these techniques and this know-how are traditional methods that are relevant or well adapted.

Finally, do you have any particular expectations as regards the next climate negotiations in Cancun?

Agriculture and soil management account for almost 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, most of the countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are developing countries and adaptation is at the top of their agenda. Sustainable land management makes it possible to adapt, preserve vegetation cover and improve the resilience of populations and ecosystems while trapping carbon (less gas is emitted). The soil issue is therefore a very important part of the problem as well as a major solution to the climate challenge. It is therefore essential and even crucial that the agreement that will be reached should include mechanisms that can take advantage of this potential, take countries with lower forest cover into account and be accessible to populations and parties affected by the sustainable management of land, especially in developing countries. That would only be fair !

Propos recueillis par Julien Leprovost

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