Turning the Tides Against Desertification: A Call to Action this World Day to Combat Desertification

Desertification and drought are related environmental phenomena increasingly recognized as global crises. Desertification refers to the process by which fertile, arable land transforms into a barren desert, primarily due to human activities and climatic variations. Drought, a natural event characterized by an extended period of deficient rainfall relative to the statistical multi-year average for a region, further exacerbates this issue.

World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, observed annually on June 17, was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994. The day aims to raise awareness about these environmental challenges, promote cooperation at all levels to achieve sustainable land management and catalyze global, national, and local actions in response to desertification, land degradation, and drought.

Desertification and drought represent far-reaching, global challenges, transcending geographical and political borders. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), desertification affects one-third of the earth’s land surface, spanning over 100 countries. This environmental menace threatens the livelihood of more than 1.2 billion people globally in 110 countries, as per the UNCCD. This figure brings into stark relief the extent of the problem.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that droughts have affected more people than any other form of natural disaster over the past four decades, and their incidence is increasing due to climate change. Drought is not merely a lack of water; it is a complex natural phenomenon with far-reaching impacts on societies and ecosystems. It can trigger and exacerbate malnutrition, food insecurity, migration, social conflict, and economic decline, impacting societies’ fabric.

These environmental issues are also inextricably linked with other global concerns. For instance, they pose severe threats to biodiversity, as desertification causes habitat loss and fragmentation, imperilling many species. Drought stress can lead to mass mortality events, drive species towards extinction, and alter the structure and function of ecosystems.

Food security, another cornerstone of sustainable development, is also critically undermined. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 99% of the calories humans consume come from the land. As desertification and drought render vast tracts of land unsuitable for cultivation, global food supplies come under threat, escalating the risk of conflicts and displacement.

The causative factors driving desertification and drought are multi-dimensional, intertwining natural and anthropogenic influences. Climate change is a critical driver. Rising global temperatures intensify the hydrological cycle, causing more extreme rainfall patterns – heavy rains in some areas, but protracted periods of dryness in others, which can lead to desertification and drought.

Human activities, especially unsustainable land-use practices, are also significant contributors. Overgrazing, deforestation, and poor farming practices strip the land of its vegetative cover, destabilizing the soil and increasing erosion. Moreover, the global rush for land resources and burgeoning population growth and economic development exert enormous pressure on land, amplifying its degradation and desertification.

Desertification and drought give rise to cascading environmental, social, and economic impacts. The environmental ramifications are profound: they diminish biodiversity, disrupt ecosystem services, alter climatic conditions, and induce soil degradation. As fertile land turns into desert, it loses its ability to absorb and store carbon, exacerbating greenhouse gas concentrations and further fuelling climate change.

Socially and economically, desertification and drought displace communities, jeopardize livelihoods, and destabilize regions. As agriculture, a primary livelihood for many people globally, particularly in developing countries, is compromised, food insecurity escalates. The World Bank estimates that due to lost agricultural productivity and the ensuing effects on food security and livelihoods, desertification’s economic costs run into tens of billions of dollars annually.

Addressing desertification and drought requires a multilayered approach. Global initiatives have been established to guide these efforts, such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which was adopted in 1994. The Convention’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets a specific target of achieving a land degradation-neutral world by 2030 – a world where the amount of healthy and productive land resources remains stable or increases.

At a national level, many countries have implemented action plans and strategies to combat desertification. For instance, China initiated the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, one of the largest ecological engineering projects globally, aimed at reducing desertification and improving the livelihoods of people living in affected areas.

Community-level initiatives also play a crucial role. Around the world, communities are innovating to restore their lands, using techniques such as farmer-managed natural regeneration, water harvesting, agroforestry, and terracing.

The theme for World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought 2023 is “Restoring Degraded Land for a Sustainable Future.” This theme aligns with the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) and underscores the critical role land restoration plays in sustainable development, poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation, and more.

In line with this theme, several organizations worldwide are already implementing projects that exemplify this approach. A notable example is the Great Green Wall initiative in Africa, an ambitious project aiming to restore and green a strip of land stretching across the continent from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east.

Each one of us can contribute to the fight against desertification and drought. Education is a powerful tool – the more people understand the causes and consequences of these issues, the more likely they are to take action. Businesses can adopt more sustainable practices and support initiatives that restore land and water resources.

Governments must strengthen policy frameworks and invest in sustainable land management and water use. International cooperation is also essential, as desertification and drought are global problems that require global solutions.

Desertification and drought are among the most complex and severe environmental challenges of our time, with vast implications for global sustainable development. They exacerbate food insecurity, undermine living conditions, trigger conflicts, and displace people. Furthermore, they diminish the land’s capacity to sequester carbon, thereby fueling climate change.

The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought 2023, under the theme “Restoring Degraded Land for a Sustainable Future”, reminds us of the urgency to halt and reverse this destructive trend. This date offers us the opportunity to reinforce our commitment to sustainable land management, which plays a critical role in maintaining the health of our planet and ensuring a future where everyone has the right to a decent life.

The 2023 commemoration urges us to consider the dire implications of inaction – and to acknowledge that the costs of action are not insurmountable. Restoring degraded land, fostering resilience in vulnerable communities, and promoting sustainable land use practices are crucial steps in combating desertification and drought. This collective action, from individual to global levels, can lead to healthier landscapes, improved livelihoods, and a more sustainable future for all.

On this World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, let’s resolve to do our part. Whether by supporting sustainable brands, advocating for responsible land management policies, educating others about the issues, or contributing to local community restoration projects, we all have a role to play.

After all, our future and the future of the generations to come depends on the health of our planet. On this day, let’s renew our commitment to making our world a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient place – a world where every piece of land counts, and no one is left behind. With the 2023 World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, let us not only raise awareness but also inspire action and make a difference, because every action counts when it comes to safeguarding our planet and our future.

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