Experts advise world policies to cope with causes, rising consequences of creeping desertification

December 14, 2006

About 200 experts from 25 countries are convening in Algiers Dec. 17-19 to advise shifts in world policies needed to cope with the causes and growing consequences of desertification - a creeping environmental crisis that threatens an estimated 2 billion people living in arid places, and a growing concern worldwide due to its global health, economic and migration impacts.

Convened by the United Nations University's Canadian-based water programme, with 10 partner international agencies and hosted by the Algerian government to conclude the UN International Year for Deserts and Desertification (IYDD), the conference will hear from experts at the forefront of policy efforts to address the problem.

Such policies, if successful, could also directly reduce the impact of climate change while ensuring adequate food, water and livelihoods for dryland dwellers. And reducing poverty in drylands can have a strong impact on the efforts to curb the flow of people - popularly termed "environmental refugees" - inside countries as well as across national borders.

"Bad policies are as much to blame for aggravating desertification as climate change, which is also largely human-induced," says conference organizer Zafar Adeel, Director of the UNU's Canadian-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health and co-chair of the team that developed a global assessment of desertification as part of the landmark 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

"Put simply, desertification - which people commonly think of as the expansion of desert sands but is defined as the persistent decline of ecosystems' benefits in dry areas - has been on the international agenda for 50 years but we still do not know precisely how fast desertification is growing, much less how best to address it. Efforts to arrest the problem have been chronically under-funded, and the situation is getting demonstrably worse every year. This conference convenes experts to share policy experiences, good and bad, and to break the policy logjam with new ideas for moving forward."

Notable desertification setbacks due to policy in many places include agricultural intensification in dry areas and the settlement of nomadic populations, causing disturbance of fragile soil and plant resources and exacerbating salinization. New land tenure systems and economic development in marginal dryland areas have created demographic changes and increased population pressures. Meanwhile, poverty reduction policies seldom address desertification, despite its impact on food security, and emergency drought relief treats only symptoms of desertification, not its causes.

The search for successful new approaches

Innovative policy options to provide the human, financial, technological and institutional resources to cope with the desertification challenge are the major focus of this conference. For example, policies that focus on providing incentives for farmers to adopt land management practices that would enhance productivity while mitigating climate change and improving the environment.

Among several conference presenters is Prof. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, who says poor developing-country households must switch to clean cooking fuels instead of burning crop residue and animal dung so that soil stops losing valuable sources of nutrients badly needed now to forestall desertification and world hunger. He argues that a global effort to help restore badly-depleted soil resources in developing countries would help: Dr Lal says that by modestly improving soil quality in developing countries, an extra 20-30 million metric tons of food per year could be produced - enough to feed the number of people being added to their populations annually - at a cost of less than $2 billion per year, about the price of a single modern jet fighter.

Karl Harmsen, Director of UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, notes estimates that Africa may be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025 if the decline in soil conditions continues on the continent.

"UNU-INRA was created in part to help address the potential soil fertility catastrophe on the African continent but the problem demands a much greater level of effort from the international community than that underway. It is a critical part of the answer to creeping desertification and world hunger."

Environment-related migrants now outnumber political refugees

While desertification is a truly global issue (for example, desert dust affects the health of people even continents away), it is estimated to directly affect some 10 to 20% of dryland regions, where population pressure is increasing and where renewable water supplies are limited, says Dr. Adeel of UNU-INWEH.

Over 2 billion people living in hyper-arid, arid, semi-arid and subhumid regions are extremely vulnerable to the loss of ecosystem services, including water supply, he says. According to research: The effects of desertification, however, are not limited to dryland areas. "As livelihoods deteriorate and climate extremes manifest themselves with increasing frequency and severity, more and more people will choose to migrate," says Dr. Adeel. "This mass movement will itself have serious environmental impacts."

Janos Bogardi, Director of the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, says estimates today show migrants uprooted primarily by environmental stressors now exceed the number of political refugees. Unlike victims of political upheaval or violence, however, who have access through governments and international organizations to such assistance as financial grants, food, tools, shelter, schools and clinics, "environmental refugees" are not yet recognized in world conventions.

"There is an overwhelming expectation that the number of people on the move due to environmental reasons will grow," says Dr. Bogardi, active in UN work to re-conceptualise and realign migration-related efforts. The number of people at risk of displacement due to severe desertification exceeds 135 million, according to published estimates.

"We are at the beginning of an unavoidably long process. Yet, the aim must be clear: to create recognition in order to assist a forcefully emerging new category of migrants."

Dr. Bogardi and UNU-EHS associates propose three categories of environmental migrants / refugees, classifications that would help form corresponding assistance strategies: Environmentally-motivated migrants; environmentally-forced migrants, and;environmental refugees (potentially including disaster refugees).

The environmentally-motivated migrant may leave a steadily deteriorating environment in order to avoid the worse; the environmentally forced migrant has to leave, says Dr. Bogardi. "These two categories reflect an option to stay or not and when to leave."

A distinction between environmentally-forced migration and environmental refugees "would be found in the swiftness of necessary actions," he says. The environmental refugee "flees" rather than "migrates."

Migration is a top-of-mind political issue in many countries, notes Dr. Bogardi. These include countries like the United States, France, Spain and Italy - which are experiencing significant migration waves - as well northern African countries like Algeria, which also experience much of this human movement. Spain and Italy have rising numbers of migrants from northwest Africa arriving on their most accessible coasts while the United States is embroiled in debate on building a wall along its Mexican border.

Creating livelihoods, preserving traditional knowledge

A major conference focus is on innovative policy options to provide the human, financial, technological and institutional resources to cope with desertification.

Speakers will present and endorse the views that national poverty reduction strategies must pay attention to creating alternative livelihoods for dryland dwellers. Many of the micro-credit approaches available today might go a long way in supporting such policies. Promoting ecotourism can provide incentives for dryland communities to better preserve their natural resources while creating sustainable livelihoods. Participating researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) say the cost of such measures is likely a fraction of the financial burden created each year by continuing desertification.

Many examples of national policies supporting such transitions are available - although not always fully successful. Accounting for, and preserving, traditional knowledge accumulated by these communities may be the missing link in the failed policies.

"Preserving traditional knowledge of the dryland communities is absolutely essential," says Maryam Niamir-Fuller, a Senior Advisor with the United Nations Development Programme. She emphasizes that "the World Initiative on Sustainable Pastoralism is one such effort that UNDP is pursuing to ensure that the wisdom of dryland communities is sufficiently captured and used in formulation of policies."

African forecasting models needed

Fellow conference presenter David Thomas of Oxford University cites predictions of an estimated 182 million deaths in Africa this century attributable to climate change, with up to 750 million additional hungry people in Africa and Asia if average global temperature increases exceed 3ºC.

Dr. Thomas will call for studies to predict or model the environmental changes people could face in Africa's dryland areas - which already constitute half the continent. Specific changes in urgent need of study are changes in drainage densities and water availability, changes in the desert sand seas, and changes in savanna shrub cover due to carbon fertilization.

How the Algiers conference will help

Says Prof. Hans van Ginkel, UN Under Secretary-General and Rector of UNU: "Desertification is a major threat, and the benefits of combating desertification in terms of poverty reduction and global environmental security are enormous. So why are governments and international development partners not doing a better job" Why have so many mistakes been repeated and why is success more often achieved in spite of policy directions, rather than because of them"

"The answer in part lies in the way policy decisions are informed - often on the basis of inaccurate or biased information, and without the benefit of comparative experience. A wealth of experience in combating desertification has been amassed around the world, but is routinely ignored by policy-makers. We hope this conference will mark a true change in the way forward and thank the Algerian government for its continuing leadership in addressing this challenge."
United Nations University

Established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1973, United Nations University is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo.

UNU-INWEH was created in 1996 to strengthen water management capacity, particularly of developing countries, and to provide on-the-ground project support. With core funding provided by the Government of Canada, it is hosted by McMaster University, Canada.

Conference Partners:2006: International Year of Deserts and Desertification

The International Year of Deserts and Desertification is an opportunity to sharpen the global focus on this critical environmental issue. Over the course of 2006 the international community has reviewed scientific and social dimensions of efforts to combat desertification, to mitigate the effects of drought and degradation and to adapt to remaining challenges. This conference will link with those that preceded it to highlight policy underpinnings needed to achieve success. It is organized by the UN and international agencies to open the policy debate to a large range of participants, including national and local stakeholders, academics, researchers, government officials, policymakers, civil society and community representatives.

United Nations University

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