Towards combating desertification

In September, New Delhi will host the 14th edition of the Conference of Parties (CoP-14) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Here’s a curtain-raiser fromTV Jayan

Each year, the world loses 12 million hectares of land — enough to produce 20 million tonnes of foodgrains — due to overexploitation and climatic variations. Since intense modern agricultural practices have become the vogue, humankind has lost 2,000 million hectares of productive land.

In September, New Delhi is to host the 14th edition of the Conference of Parties (CoP-14) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which is expected to see major discussion on land degradation and ways to arrest it, perhaps, even reverse it.

“A quarter of our land is now unusable. By the middle of the century we have to produce twice as much grains as today, as the global population is growing,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw during a recent visit to New Delhi to check on preparations for the CoP-14 summit.

The Delhi CoP has many important items on its agenda. First, it is said to be a conference where top officials of many other UN bodies, such as the FAO, UNDP and UNEP — which are not only much bigger than UNCCD, but also have much greater mandate — are expected to participate. This is because the summit, which representatives from over 195 countries are likely to attend, is the last one before the Decade of Ecological Restoration (2021-2030) declared by the UN General Assembly kicks in.

It is said that the degradation of land and marine ecosystems affects the well-being of 3.2 billion people globally and costs nearly 10 per cent of the annual global gross product in loss of species and ecosystem services. Averting further land degradation and reversing a part of it that has already happened helps not only global food security, but also aids in combating many other environmental issues, including deforestation, water and air pollution, and even climate change.

A recent study has shown that if about 350 million hectares of degraded land — nearly a sixth of what is lost due to degradation — is restored between now and 2030, the global community can generate $9 trillion in ecosystem services and take an additional 13-26 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

Land degradation neutrality

Many of the problems that we see today can be directly attributed to land degradation, be it poverty, increasing incidence of extreme weather events, forced migration or loss of biodiversity. According to UNCCD, because land is fixed in quantity, there is ever-increasing competition to control land resources and capitalise on the flows of goods and services from the land. This has the potential to cause social and political instability, fuelling poverty, conflict and migration. Consequently, the UNCCD CoP-12, held in Ankara, the capital city of Turkey, in 2015, decided to push for what UNCCD coined as land degradation neutrality (LDN).

In the past, land degradation was addressed by attempting to fix it wherever it had happened. But realising that it was not humanly possible to fix past degradation on the scale it occurred, the global community decided to take a holistic approach to the problem. LDN — defined as counterbalancing all new degradation that for whatever reasons cannot be avoided through the reversal of an equal or greater amount of land that was degraded in the past by 2030 — is an attempt in that direction, said Barron Joseph Orr, Lead Scientist at UNCCD.

As of now, 122 countries in the world have committed to setting LDN targets for themselves. While two-thirds of them have already announced their LDN goals, others are in the process of doing so. In fact, India recently stated that it would try to restore as much as 13 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, as part of its LDN goal. LDN in one way helps address many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 global goals set by the UN General Assembly in 2015 that need to be achieved by 2030. SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

LDN aligns well with the SDG target 15.3, which says “By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world.” Besides, it contributes to the achievement of many other SDGs, including those related to climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity conservation, food and water security, disaster risk reduction, and poverty reduction. Besides, addressing land degradation is essential for bringing peace in the world. Reducing land degradation also means bringing stability in the countries, said Thiaw.

“According to studies, up to 40 per cent of conflicts that have occurred over the last 50 years have been due to competition to have access to natural resources — land, water, minerals, forest, among others. Unfortunately very few — probably around a third of conflict resolution agreements — have a clause related to the root cause. So in essence, you have major sources of conflicts, but the agreements to resolve these conflicts have not addressed the root causes. So as a consequence, every three to five years, you see a relapse, because you have not addressed the root cause,” the UNCCD chief said.

Drought Toolbox

Apart from having elaborate discussions on Decade of Ecological Restoration, which includes thrashing out differences between various countries, the Delhi summit is expected to deliberate on engaging private corporates in land restoration efforts. One thorny issue in this regard is giving control of the land to be reclaimed to private firms at least for a duration. “The issue of land tenure is expected to be discussed at Delhi,” said Thiaw. “The idea is to allow businesses that are engaged in restoring degraded land to use the land for some time, say, 50-60 years, so that they can restore it and use for a period. Subsequently the restored land can be returned,” said the UNCCD chief during a media briefing in Ankara last month.

Quoting economists working on the issue, he said each single dollar invested in land restoration generates a return of $5. “If this is not profitable, then what is profitable,” said Thiaw.

Droughts, which have become more frequent, severe and recurring, of late, will be another issue for discussion at the Delhi meet.

The last CoP in Ordos, China, asked UNCCD to develop a mechanism to help forecast droughts in a more reliable manner. Consequently, UNCCD researchers, together with the help of specialists elsewhere, have developed a Drought Toolbox that can be used by countries to assess drought-like conditions and prepare themselves for tackling severity.

“Another issue that will be discussed in Delhi will be how to mitigate the impact of drought on the world. However, we have very little knowledge at the moment. We probably need to do more research and need some policy decisions,” said the UNCCD chief.

In today’s connected world, the impact of droughts is felt not just in the geographical area where it is occurring but elsewhere too. Very often, drought pushes up commodity prices, making food unaffordable for the poor.

While developed economies have sufficient capacities to manage the impact of a drought, developing countries suffer badly, often for years on end.

Recently, a severe drought in Germany knocked off around 1 per cent of its GDP. How many developing countries can afford such an economic impact?

Published on July 30, 2019

Related

  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.