The United Nations has designated 2010'2020 as the decade to raise public awareness of the threat posed by worsening drought and human mismanagement of drylands. Meanwhile, farmers around the world find new ways to salvage degraded lands that lead to desertification.
Drylands make up more than 40 percent of the world's land surface and are home to 2.1 billion -- one in three -- people worldwide. Every year, 12 million hectares of land (120,000 square kilometers) are lost to such degradation, an estimated economic loss of $42 billion.
"If the land is totally degraded, it takes hundreds of years to recover," Yukie Hori, coordinator of the Awareness Raising, Coordination and Education Unit of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, told America.gov. "But if you stop the desertification by properly managing land â-- we call it sustainable land management â-- the land becomes very productive."
Part of the challenge for the Decades for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification, launched August 16, is to educate people about the difference between deserts, drylands and desertification.
Drylands make up a little more than 41 percent of Earth's surface and include croplands, grasslands and rangelands (lands with native vegetation on which animals graze). Desertification is what happens when healthy landscapes in dryland areas turn barren in response to drought and unsustainable activities such as overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices.
"Across the globe, efforts to rehabilitate drylands are showing results," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an August 16 statement. "By providing sustained assistance to local communities, we can preserve or recover millions of hectares of land, reduce vulnerability to climate change and alleviate hunger and poverty for one-third of humanity."
The U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is one mechanism that supports international cooperation in fighting desertification. The agreement entered into force in 1996, and 193 countries, including the United States, are parties to it.
The UNCCD's global mandate is to combat desertification and land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought. Its work includes establishing systems for early warning, drought preparedness and drought-risk management.
With the U.N. Development Programme, UNCCD will release a study this month that promotes specific policy approaches for drylands, which are home, the report says, to "the poorest, the hungriest, the least healthy and the most marginalised people in the world."
"The message of this forward-looking study is clear," UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja said in a statement. "Poor soils result in poor people."
Not far from Dubai, in the Neeza Sharjah Dunes, the wind molds the desert sand into beautiful shapes.
According to the report, The Forgotten Billion, policies should include country-led development and effective governance addressing the needs and conditions of drylands populations, economic growth policies that improve farming systems and soil productivity, climate adaptation to help small-holder farmers manage risk, targeted interventions for social assistance, and investment in education, health and basic services.
On September 6, Gnacadja and World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Michel Jarraud pledged to intensify collaboration to enhance public responses to the effects of climate change.
In Africa, where drylands make up about 60 percent of the continent, several groups are working on drylands issues. In July, the MDG (Millennium Development Goals) Centre of East and Southern Africa and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) launched an effort called the Drylands Initiative.
The initiative will help thousands of historically neglected pastoralists with animal production, infrastructure, health, education and business projects in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan. The MDG Centre is also in talks with Eritrea.
During a June briefing at the UNCCD in Bonn, Chris Reij, a fellow at the Center for International Cooperation at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, described an environmental transformation taking place as the result of African Re-Greening Initiatives, a project that promotes replanting in Africa's drylands.
In the Sahel, he said, local people planted 200 million trees between 1975 and 2003, regreening 5 million hectares of land. The farmers used a combination of soil improvement, water harvesting and improved traditional tree-planting pits called zai to grow trees. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, he said, local people have replanted 1 million hectares of land.
The program is now operating in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, Hori said.
A similar transformation took place in China's 640,000-square-kilometer Loess Plateau between 1994 and 2005 in a project funded by the World Bank. Overuse and overgrazing led to severe degradation in a place that was home to more than 50 million people.
During the project, nearly 3,000 square kilometers of eroded land was terraced and local farmers learned about soil erosion. The project's success had a ripple effect throughout the economy. Between 1993 and 2001, the number of people below the poverty line declined from 50 percent to 27 percent, the annual grain harvest nearly doubled and annual income per 100 yuan experienced a fourfold increase.