World Struggles to Fend Off Desertification - UN

NEW YORK, New York, June 17, 2003 (ENS) - Every year, vast patches of the Earth turn barren and unproductive, the consequence of drought and poor land management. This process - known as desertification - has far reaching costs to humanity, United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan said today, and poses "an ever increasing global threat."

In a message marking World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, Annan warned that increasing land degradation is threatening food production and triggering humanitarian and economic crises.

"Because the poor often farm degraded land that is increasingly unable to meet their needs, desertification is both a cause and a consequence of poverty," Annan said. "Fighting desertification must, therefore, be an integral part of our wider efforts to eradicate poverty and ensure long term food security."

Drought and desertification threaten the livelihood of more than 1.2 billion people in some 110 countries, with 135 million around the world at risk of being displaced.

The world must start aggressively combating desertification, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said. (Photo courtesy United Nations) Human activities such as overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices are key factors in this trend, Annan said, and arable land per person is shrinking throughout the world. Arable land per person has declined from 0.32 hectares per person in 1961-63 to 0.21 hectares in 1997-99 and is expected to drop further to 0.16 hectares by 2030.

An estimated six million hectares of productive land are lost every year because of desertification, land degradation and declining agricultural productivity, according to the UN.

Last year, for example, millions of tons of productive topsoil in Australia blew away in dust storms, as the country suffered through its worst drought in more than a century. In India, dry spells and deforestation turn 2.5 million hectares in wasteland every year.

And some 70 percent of all land in Mexico is vulnerable to desertification, one reason why some 900,000 Mexicans leave home each year in search of a better life as migrant workers in the United States.

"But nowhere is the problem of desertification more acute than in sub-Saharan Africa," Annan explained, "where the number of environmental refugees is expected to rise to 25 millions in the next 20 years.

Natural vegetation barriers are often better solutions to desertification than high technology engineering projects. (Photo by P. Cenini courtesy U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization) Sustainable water resource management is the theme of this year's World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, highlighting the issue of water scarcity and the need for better water conservation and management. The Secretary General urged countries to support the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought - the only legally binding treaty to address desertification and drought with a focus on sustainable development.

Since the treaty was adopted in 1994, "numerous projects have been initiated, despite limited resources," Annan said, but much more needs to be done to reverse the trend of continued desertification.

Some 187 nations are Parties to the convention, but funding has not matched this tacit support for the measures needed to address the problems of drought and desertification.

"Let us today recommit ourselves to the goals of the Convention, and to achieving sustainable development for all, including in the dryland rural areas where the world's poorest people live," Annan said
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