As over 100 heads of state, governments and delegations gather at UN Headquarters for an historic high-level meeting on addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development, we owe it to ourselves to tell our leaders that emergency assistance for millions in the Horn of Africa is vital in the short term, but it is not enough or for the long-term good of all.
As the international community’s primary advisor on land degradation and the mitigation of the effects of drought in the drylands of the world, the famine in Ethiopia and our response measures are at the top of my agenda. As usual, a poignant question that I have reflected on is: “are we missing the point?” It seems to me that we are.
As the world rightly responds to famine in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, we miss the point that suffering on this scale can be avoided altogether. Practical and affordable tools exist that can help people in the world’s arid regions to prepare for drought. In West Africa, for instance, practitioners estimated that over a 25-year period, farmer-led regreening initiatives have rehabilitated over 5 million hectares of land at cost of between 20 to 50 US dollars per hectare per year.
Drought is predictable so we can prepare for it. By using such sustainable land management techniques and building the resilience of the local communities through a systematic approach, the populations and ecosystems of the Horn of Africa would have been better prepared to adapt to harsh climatic conditions. Therefore, long-term responses to resolve and pre-empt the wide-scale negative effects of future droughts, which are projected to be more intense, longer and extensive, are not only critical, but must also be built on a credible science and knowledge base so that appropriate policy incentives to strengthen the scaling up and rolling out of these techniques are assured.
Some people have written off the current crisis in the Horn of Africa as a short term manifestation of the cyclical La Nina effect. No doubt climate change and weak governance are also playing their part in the Horn of Africa tragedy, but this is only part of the story. The fundamental causes of the drought are more elemental. Water is, of course, the key ingredient for growing food. The other requirement is productive soil.
However, in the last 50 years, we have degraded 30% of global topsoil. Every minute, 23 hectares of productive land are degraded due to desertification and drought. Consequently, the ecosystem services provided by the soil, including in the Horn of Africa, have been severely affected. To me this is the blind spot.
Soil is natural capital, so it should yield a flow of valuable ecosystem goods, like agricultural products, or services, such as water retention and carbon sequestration, long into the future. If, through human activity, the soil is degraded, the effects of drought will be more pronounced and food security will be progressively compromised. As competition for dwindling resources grows, the seeds of famine and potential conflict are sown. This is acutely evident in the Horn of Africa today, but drought preparedness and drought management are pressing global challenges that require a bold policy response.
Dryland communities make up one-third of the world population and as much as 44% of the world’s cultivated systems lie in these ecosystems. With the global population rising as arable land disappears at 30 to 35 times historical rates, food prices will doubtless increase worldwide. Competition for access to productive land and water is likely to intensify. Investments in land abroad for future food production multiplied ten-fold in 2009. Most of this land was acquired in the arid regions of the world, especially in Africa. A vicious Malthusian cycle should not be allowed to emerge. So what shall we do?
In my view, we are at a tipping point and the smart economic choice for governments and business is to deploy sustainable land management techniques and drought management systems that protect the population and ecosystems in the drought-prone regions. Otherwise, the cost of inaction on drought and land degradation will be steep, with preliminary research suggesting that this would be about five to seven times the cost of action. By taking care of the land and soil, we can address water, food and energy security even in the most arid and poorly governed areas, and reduce poverty and environmental risk and promote sustainable development at the same time.
There are vast opportunities to perform dryland alchemy and generate financial reward. At least 900 million hectares of degraded land can be restored and managed sustainably worldwide. This is a huge, untapped resource that could become highly productive and lucrative, given the demand for 120 million hectares of arable land to meet the food needs for a population of 9 billion by 2050. There is good reason to invest in degrading land. Farmers in Malawi, for instance, saw their resilience to drought enhanced and their maize yields increased up to 280% in land farmed sustainably under a canopy of evergreen agriculture Faidherbia trees. The prospect of creating green jobs in an inclusive and pro-poor green economy is evident.
As over 100 heads of state, governments and delegations gather at UN Headquarters tomorrow for an historic high-level meeting on addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development, we owe it to ourselves to tell our leaders that emergency assistance for millions in the Horn of Africa is vital in the short term, but it is not enough or for the long-term good of all. A paradigm shift in the way land is utilized for food production is crucial. The land, and the soil, more specifically, is the thin fabric that separates humankind from extinction, and until we move decisively towards a sustainable management of this exhaustible resource, we are all faring a blind journey.
Luc Gnacadja is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in those countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa (UNCCD).
About the UNCCD:
Established in 1994, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development issues to the land agenda. The Convention focuses on all the world’s drylands, home to over 2 billion people, 50% of the world’s livestock and accounting for 44% of all cultivated ecosystems. The Convention’s 194 Parties are dedicated to combating land degradation and mitigating the effects of drought in the drylands by improving the living conditions of the affected populations and ecosystems.