Adaptation Powered by Land, the Missing Piece in the Puzzle
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Healthy land sustains life and is the backbone of our social, political and economic security.

If we are serious about adapting to climate change, we have to rehabilitate the land.

Climate change is transforming the world as we know it. Coastlines are being altered, plants and wildlife are at risk and groundwater levels are declining dramatically. But the land seems to soldier on, at the frontline of these impacts, with more than half of all areas that produce food now moderately or severely degraded. Land is our lifeline. If it suffers, we are bound to suffer too. Healthy land sustains life and is the backbone of our social, political and economic security. If we are serious about adapting to climate change, we have to rehabilitate the land.

The impact of the ailing land is conspicuous and dramatic in the two areas that matter most for everyone – food and fresh water. Today, over 1 billion people lack sufficient access to water and nearly 1 billion are hungry. In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report released earlier this year, the decline in underground fresh water resources globally was the most notable change across all regions of the world. The report also notes that food and crop yields are dropping and plant and animal life is migrating.

Land is at the nexus of food, water and energy security. Where it has become barren due to fertility loss or water scarcity, people are being forced to migrate. In a tragic irony, the search for sustenance elsewhere sounds a death knell for many. Conflicts are flaring up among communities in a vain attempt to re-distribute declining land and water resources. The conflicts and mass migration taking place in many of the driest parts of the world are a testimony to this fact. Climate change is not the main cause, but it is amplifying the various challenges people who are barely surviving face, and making it difficult to cope. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) publication, Desertification – The Invisible Frontline, highlights the links between climate change, land degradation and insecurity.

What gives me optimism is the transformation I have seen among communities that once lived on the edge, now thriving and even profiting. And, they are almost oblivious to the fact that climate change is impacting their land. Why? For the last decade or two, they rehabilitated their land in a manner that works with, not against nature’s forces. For many years, communities in Ethiopia and Niger were in the news whenever there was a drought. But as we celebrate the World Day to Combat Desertification this week, we are sharing inspiring stories of hope and transformation from these countries. They are not immune to climatic impacts, but they have made remarkable steps in healing the land and the outcome has been phenomenal. But it takes deliberate and decisive action by governments and communities to restore watersheds, forests and biological diversity in order to heal the land.

A most appealing facet of the adaptation and resilience approaches that target the land is empowerment. They place the power to act on climate change in the hands of every individual – even the poorest. The story of Yacouba Sawadogo, a peasant from Burkina Faso is revealing. His innovation of a traditional water harvesting technique, led to the restoration of over 5 million hectares of land, in a domino-effect, by villagers across Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. During this period, temperatures in the Sahel region rose by 1.5-2.0 degrees Celsius. And as ground water resources were declining around the world, for Batodi, one of the villages in Niger that was transformed by this movement, the underground water level rose by 14 meters.

The story of adaptation to climate change is also a story for all of humanity because none of us will be immune to its impacts –now or in the future. That is why we need collective action and adaptation measures that focus on the health of the land everywhere. But it is also a personal story – Yacouba’s, yours and mine – because our ability to bear and cope with climatic impacts will be won or lost at the local level – directly tied to the health of the land around us.

The disastrous impacts of recent climatic variations signal a serious problem with the land’s ability to cope and the need to strengthen our ecosystems. Increasing plant cover and rehabilitating wildlife and micro-organisms are essential. But they don’t happen where the soil is infertile and drained of fresh water. Land-based adaptation to climate change is not only the missing piece of the jigsaw, but also the starting point of adaptation. The methods are simple, cost effective and yield results quickly. This is the essence of our message in Land Based Adaptation and Resilience – Powered by Nature. Healthy ecosystems can tolerate higher thresholds of climatic impacts, which, in turn, moderate the effects on us. And land-based adaptation is the means by which each of us can act and reap the benefits of the change we want to see in the world.

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