Desertification is target of decade of action innovations

DESERTIFICATION MEANS land degradation in dry lands (arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas) resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities. Land degradation can trigger a cycle of environmental degradation, impoverishment, migration and conflict, often jeopardizing the political stability of affected countries and regions. Populations in dry lands often endure very harsh economic conditions, suffering from low per-capita-income and high infant mortality rates. Soil degradation in dry lands further exacerbates the problem. The decline in the fertility of land reduces crop production and prospects of additional income. Considering that dry lands occupy 41.3% of the entire land surface on the Earth and about 50% of the worlds livestock, you will see the magnitude of possible impact of desertification in everyones life around the world. Desertification is not only about the encroachment of deserts.

Drylands make up more than 40 percent of the worlds 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.

With carefully designed policy support, economic instruments can help to reorient degraded rangelands towards more sustainable land management. This is one of the conclusions of an article published in the Journal of Environmental Management, based on a case study of land degradation in the Kalahari rangelands of southwest Botswana that was funded by the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative.

Reorienting land degradation towards sustainable land management: Linking sustainable livelihoods with ecosystem services in rangeland systems, conventional policies aimed at addressing bush encroachment including some pilot initiatives under Botswanas National Action Plan (NAP) for implementing the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) – have had mixed results because they have primarily focused on biophysical assessments of degradation, at the farm or ranch scale.

Discussing a variety of studies examining the impact of past livestock production policies that prioritized fencing of land, based on livestock carrying capacities, the authors conclude that such political lock-in to the privatization of rangeland areas “may be further worsening land degradation and deepening already pronounced social and economic inequalities,” by placing constraints on mobility by livestock producers and “compromising the possibility of the multiple uses of rangeland.”

By contrast, they argue, more promising policy experiments, such as an alternative narrative to reduce land degradation based on sustaining livelihoods in common property land tenure regimes “have not yet been mainstreamed.”

Major policy interventions and management approaches are needed to prevent and reverse desertification. Assessment of future scenarios shows that major interventions and shifts in ecosystem management will be needed to overcome challenges related to desertification. As recognized by the UNCCD, such interventions are to be implemented at local to global scales, with the active engagement of stakeholders and local communities. Improved information generation and access, as noted in the final section, will help create enabling conditions for this implementation.

Societal and policy responses vary according to the degree of desertification that a society faces. This intensity of responses needs to be reflected accordingly in National Action Programmed stipulated by the UNCCD and their subsequent implementation. In areas where desertification processes are at the early stages or are relatively minor, it is possible to arrest the process and restore key services in the degraded areas. The adverse impacts of desertification on dry land ecosystem services and limited success in rehabilitation demonstrate that it is more cost-effective to prevent desertification

Addressing desertification is critical and essential to meeting the Millennium Development Goals. The human well-being of dry land people, about 90% of whom are in developing countries, lags significantly behind other areas. Approximately half of the people worldwide who live below the poverty line live in dry lands. The combination of high variability in ecosystem conditions in drylands and high levels of poverty leads to a situation where societies are vulnerable to a further decline in human well-being. Addressing desertification therefore facilitates eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, as envisioned in the MDGs. This also complements directly the policies to be included in NAPs to combat desertification.

Protection of vegetative cover can be a major instrument for prevention of desertification. Maintaining vegetative cover to protect soil from wind and water erosion is a key preventive measure against desertification. Properly maintained vegetative cover also prevents loss of ecosystem services during drought episodes. Reduced rainfall may be induced if vegetation cover is lost due to over cultivation, overgrazing, overharvesting of medicinal plants, woodcutting, or mining activities. This is usually coupled with the effect of reduced surface evapotranspiration and shade or increased albedo.

In the dry sub humid and semiarid zones, conditions equally favor pastoral and cropping land use. Rather than competitively excluding each other, a tighter cultural and economic integration between the two livelihoods can prevent desertification. Mixed farming practices in these zones, whereby a single farm household combines livestock rearing and cropping, allows a more efficient recycling of nutrients within the agricultural system. Such interactions can lower livestock pressure on rangelands through fodder cultivation and the provision of stubble to supplement livestock feed during forage scarcity (and immediately after, to allow plant regeneration) due to within- and between-years climatic variability. At the same time, farmland benefits from manure provided by livestock kept on fields at night during the dry season.

Use of locally suitable technology is a key way for inhabitants of dry lands at risk of desertification to work with ecosystem processes rather than against them. Applying a combination of traditional technology with selective transfer of locally acceptable technology is a major way to prevent desertification. Conversely, there are numerous examples of practices-such as unsustainable irrigation techniques and technologies and rangeland management, as well as growing crops unsuited to the agroclimatic zone-that tend to accelerate, if not initiate, desertification processes. Thus technology transfer requires in-depth evaluation of impacts and active participation of recipient communities.

Local communities can prevent desertification and provide effective dryland resource management but are often limited by their capacity to act. Drawing on cultural history and local knowledge and experience, and reinforced by science, dryland communities are in the best position to devise practices to prevent desertification. However, there are many limitations imposed on the interventions available to communities, such as lack of institutional capacity, access to markets, and financial capital for implementation. Enabling policies that involve local participation and community institutions, improve access to transport and market infrastructures, inform local land managers, and allow land users to innovate are essential to the success of these practices. For example, a key traditional adaptation was transhumance for pastoral communities, which in many dryland locations is no longer possible. Loss of such livelihood options or related local knowledge limits the communitys capacity to respond to ecological changes and heightens the risk of desertification .

Desertification can be avoided by turning to alternative livelihoods that do not depend on traditional land uses, are less demanding on local land and natural resource use, yet provide sustainable income. Such livelihoods include dryland aquaculture for production of fish, crustaceans and industrial compounds produced by microalgae, greenhouse agriculture, and tourism-related activities. They generate relatively high income per land and water unit in some places. Dryland aquaculture under plastic cover, for example, minimizes evaporative losses, and provides the opportunity to use saline or brackish water productively. Alternative livelihoods often even provide their practitioners a competitive edge over those outside the drylands, since they harness dryland features such as solar radiation, winter relative warmth, brackish geothermal water, and sparsely populated pristine areas that are often more abundant than in non-drylands. Implementation of such practices in drylands requires institution building, access to markets, technology transfer, capital investment, and reorientation of farmers and pastoralists

Desertification can also be avoided by creating economic opportunities in drylands urban centers and areas outside drylands. Changes in overall economic and institutional settings that create new opportunities for people to earn a living could help relieve current pressures underlying the desertification processes. Urban growth, when undertaken with adequate planning and provision of services, infrastructure, and facilities, can be a major factor in relieving pressures that cause desertification in drylands. This view is relevant when considering the projected growth of the urban fraction in drylands, which will increase to around 52% by 2010 and to 60% by 2030.

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