Interview with Dr. Mansour N'Diaye, Chef De Cabinet of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification secretariat

The sands across the world are crawling, turning vast stretches of land into desert each year. Their relentless march, invading villages, farmlands and water bodies, has made millions of people ecological refugees across the world. Desertification is not just an ecological issue but also one of shrinking food and water supplies, a loss of jobs and mass migration. June 17 is annually observed as World Day to Combat Desertification. Dr. Mansour N'Diaye, Chef De Cabinet of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) secretariat, spoke to K.P.M. Basheer onthe need for setting a sustainable development goal of “zero net land degradation by 2030” at the Rio+20 meet. The interview took place during a visit organised by the UNCCD to Chifeng, a city in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. A large part of Inner Mongolia's territory is desert. The desert storms emerging from there reach up to Beijing. Excerpts:

How do you assess the threat of desertification?

Desertification is a huge global environmental problem — like climate change. Desertification adds to, and worsens the impact of climate change. Currently, some two billion people are affected by desertification and the degradation of land; 41 per cent of the landmass worldwide is prone to desertification. The major deserts in the world are expanding at an alarming rate. Deserts in China, Mongolia and Africa are all invading their neighbouring regions. In your own country, the deserts in western India are expanding. Hundreds of thousands of hectares in the arid and semi-arid regions and drylands around the world are becoming sand dunes every year. This means fewer and fewer hectares are available for agriculture, livestock rearing and allied activities that offer livelihood sources to hundreds of millions of world population, especially the poor. Desertification cuts on the availability of food and water even as the global population is increasing. It also causes disasters such as sandstorms which wipe out large swathes of habitable lands. Aquifers vanish and biodiversity is greatly reduced.

If we do not rehabilitate the degraded lands and stop the march of the deserts, there will be huge global shortages of food, water and fuels and unprecedented mass migrations.

What causes desertification?

Land degradation and desertification is a long process. They involve a host of issues such as deforestation, over-grazing, over-cultivation, logging, pressure of population, industrialisation and poor land-use practices. A naturally dry climate, long spells of droughts and heavy winds add to the anthropogenic causes.

What will be the role of the upcoming Rio+20 conference in the fight against desertification?

The Rio+20 role will be very crucial as world leaders can take a bold decision of setting a sustainable development goal for “zero net land degradation.” We are pushing for an agreement on zero net land degradation by 2030. Setting up of an Intergovernmental Panel on Land and Soil will be very helpful in speeding up efforts to check desertification. Desertification is nearly as critical as climate change and international initiative on climate change and biodiversity loss should have linkages and synergies with steps against desertification. Unfortunately, people are not as aware of the impact of desertification as they are of climate change. The Rio+20 meeting can bring in desertification on the sustainable development agenda. It can also agree to give more legal teeth to the UNCCD.

Steps to check desertification and rehabilitating degraded lands are expensive and time-consuming. How can poor countries rise to the challenge?

Of course, the battle against desertification calls for long-term commitment and investment. There is no alternative. Regional, sub-regional and country-level plans are necessary for Africa and Asia to reclaim deserts and restore them to fertile farmlands. Developing countries need to integrate their poverty eradication programmes with strategies to fight desertification. They could also earmark a certain share of their annual budgets for the efforts. The soil and land preservation efforts should be prioritised and mainstreamed. The funds for climate change mitigation and adaptation could be dovetailed to the anti-desertification programme. In Africa, several countries have come together to form a 12,000 sq.km “great green wall” extending from Senegal to Djibouti with the participation of local communities. People's participation is crucial in reclaiming lands. China's “great green wall” project is on a massive scale and is now starting to show results.

What are some of the ways to rehabilitate degraded lands?

More than two billion hectares of degraded land in various parts of the world can be rehabilitated. The techniques include agro-forestry and farmer-managed natural regeneration. Small community initiatives like closure of degraded lands for grazing, curtailing farming, growing fast-growing plants, raising tall trees that serve as a barrier against winds and sandstorms are very effective. National governments could consider building large green belts, prioritise forestry programmes and launch projects of fixing and stabilising sands. In China, where deserts comprise 27 per cent of the landmass, lots of money has been invested in anti-desertification programmes. The country has realised that desertification — and its spin-off, the sandstorm — has to be tackled to sustain its economic development.

kpmbasheer@thehindu.co.in