DEVELOPMENT: Droughts Do Not Happen Overnight

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By Ramesh Jaura

As the international community struggled to provide all possible assistance to more than 11 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya – adversely affected by the lack of food and long spell of drought – Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), Luc Gnacadja, drew attention to an often ignored fact that "droughts do not happen overnight."

UNCCD emerged from the Earth Summit in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, along with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). UNCCD was adopted in Paris on June 17, 1994.

While calling on the international community to respond urgently to the unfolding crisis, Gnacadja stressed the need for "effective long term solutions to the root causes of famine in drought prone regions." Such solutions lie in implementation of drought management systems and measures to put a halt to creeping desertification stemming from acute land degradation in drylands.

After all, neither desertification, nor land degradation, nor droughts are God Given. They are triggered by human activities and climate change much of which is influenced by human beings.

A widespread but misguided belief is that drylands are waste lands or marginal lands with low productivity and low adaptive capacity where poverty is inevitable, contribute little to national prosperity and yield no good return on investments, he told a Forum on Human Security in Switzerland on July 15.

The fact is rather that drylands comprise one-third of the world land mass and population, 44% of the global food production system, and 50% of the world's livestock. In addition, dry forests are home to the world's largest diversity of mammals whose survival, literally, hangs on the arid zone forests.

'FEED ME TO FEED YOU'

Traditional wisdom has it that dire consequences result from continuously ignoring repeated cries for help by what multiple communities across the globe call 'Mother Earth: "Feed me to feed you". If not handled with care, land suffers from utter degradation and becomes acutely vulnerable to desertification that does not allow even a blade of grass to grow.

Presently, extreme poverty, increased emissions of harmful greenhouse gases, food insecurity and hunger, instability and crisis, increased water stress, biodiversity loss, and migrations are putting a huge stress on land.

This prompted the UNCCD Executive Secretary to declare, "We are the desert-making species on earth." Gnacadja added: "We are the planet's skin disease." Millions in drylands are being forced to move to more productive land, and this is a major cause of conflict.

It is high time, therefore, to grasp some of the traditional wisdom such as the one enshrined in the Vedas, a large body of texts originating in ancient India some 3500 years ago.

Gnacadja cited one important passage from the Vedas: "Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it."

Presently because of agricultural system being under stress, some 925 million people are going hungry, 80% of them are small holder farmers and landless poor in rural areas. Providing food for an additional 3 billion people by 2050 requires a 70% increase in global food production.

World food prices are expected to continue to be higher in the next decade. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, land degradation over the next 25 years may reduce global food production by up to 12% resulting in world food prices as much higher as 30%.

Major drylands specific challenges are: climatic and ecological challenges that limit production; economic challenges such as low investment, poor infrastructure and limited access to market; policy and institutional challenges involving low national priority, poor land and natural resources governance, limited access to knowledge and information; socio-cultural aspects such as nomadic lifestyles; demography, and conflicts in some countries.

SO MUCH DEPENDS ON SO LITTLE

"So much depends on so little, and we are not really tackling the root causes," Gnacadja rightly pointed out. Humanity must double its food production to feed 9 billion people, as the "vicious cycle of poverty" worsens. Eight out of ten conflicts in the world are in dryland areas.

"We need to take action, but the good news is that people are taking action at a grassroots level. There is land improvement in many dryland areas, because people are striving to adapt. We need to support their efforts." He called for a governance for "holistic management", and a greater focus on "the forgotten billion", the poorest people in the world.

The costs of inaction were far higher than action, the UNCCD Executive Secretary warned. Desertification and land degradation was closely related to the problems of food security, and political stability, a complex mix that all went in to "human security".

There are a multitude of reasons to advance the fight against desertification, he said:
1. Drylands hold the key to future food security. 2. Addressing DLDD (desertification, land degradation and drought) contributes to human security and political stability.
3. We cannot adapt to climate change or mitigate its effects without resorting to SLM (sustainable land management).
4. It will be impossible to protect the planet against the loss of terrestrial biodiversity without addressing DLDD.
5. We cannot protect our forests without addressing the top driver of deforestation: DLDD. 6. It will be impossible to reach the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) without rescuing "the forgotten billion", the poorest among the poor living in dry lands.

Realising the significance of the issue, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on June 17, 2011, the World Day to Combat Desertification: "We need to reward those who make drylands productive, so they will prosper and others will seek to emulate their example."

It is with this in view that the UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on September 20, 2011 in New York will focus on the theme: 'Addressing DLDD issues in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development'. The meeting will be attended by heads of government and state from around the world.

Government ministers will discuss ways out of desertification, land degradation and drought at the tenth conference of parties (COP 10) October 10-21 in South Korea. DLLD will also be on the agenda of United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, June 4-6, 2012.

Rio+20 will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

External links:
http://www.unccd.int
http://www.caux.iofc.org
http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/index.php?menu=17

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