Political Will to Stop
Spreading Deserts is Missing

ROME, Italy, June 15, 2001 (ENS) - More than 100 countries in all climatic regions on all continents are seriously affected by desertification, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today in a statement marking the UN's World Day to Combat Desertification on Sunday.

In protests over water shortages, two people were shot and killed by police in Karachi, Pakistan this week, and hundreds of activists have been detained in recent months. Much of Pakistan has been afflicted by a severe drought which has left major reservoirs almost empty, and efforts to solve the problem have become tangled in inter-provincial disputes.

At the FAO, Assistant Director-General Dr. Hosny El-Lakany, said desertification is like a "disease of the earth." It dries up the vegetative cover of croplands, pastures and woodlands, and has negative impact on biological diversity, soil fertility, the hydrological cycle, crop yields and livestock production.

In Central Asia on June 12, the government of Uzbekistan took emergency measures to alleviate the consequences of the drought in the northwestern provinces that has reduced crop fields to half of their original size, and put around 100,000 people out of work. Drinking water is in short supply and the environment is parched.

desertThese trees have been planted to restore and African desert to life. (Photos courtesy FAO)

 
Desertification, or land degradation in dryland areas, can eventually turn drylands into unproductive desertlike areas. Drylands make up 40 percent of the world's land surface and desertification affects the lives of one-sixth of the world's population, among them the poorest people on earth.

The Global Environment Outlook 2000 report, published by the UN Environment Programme indicates that total land degradation has affected some 1.9 billion hectares of land worldwide.

The rate at which arable land is being lost is increasing and has been estimated at 30 to 35 times the historical rate. Worldwide, the loss of potential productivity due to soil erosion is estimated as equivalent to some 20 million tons of grain per year.

One of the main causes of desertification is increasing pressure on land resulting from rapid population growth and poverty, often aggravated by increasingly recurrent droughts.

Combating desertification is complex and requires a long term commitment and national and international coordination, the FAO says. Local communities must be actively involved in decision making processes.

In 1994 the international community launched the Convention to Combat Desertification, which became operational in November 1997 at a conference hosted by FAO in Rome. Today, more than 180 countries have ratified the treaty, but only a few of them have implemented substantial programs and policies that support it.

"FAO's active involvement in the fight against desertification is vital not only in relation to its mandate to help countries manage forest resources, and preserve soils, water resources, vegetation and biodiversity, but also in fulfilling its mandate to promote food security, particularly of vulnerable rural populations," Dr. El-Lakany said.

plantingChina's Xinglongzhao Forest Farm. Here the underground water layer is shallow and in low-lying areas superficial clay layers are found near the soil surface.


FAO is supporting the implementation of national action programs to combat desertification in Mali, China, Senegal, Turkey, Chile, Cuba, Yemen, Lebanon and Cambodia. It is also giving particular emphasis to dry countries through its Special Program on Food Security.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme says that desertification as an issue does not stand in isolation. "It is clearly related to changes in climate, biodiversity conservation and the need for sustainable forest and water resource management. The links between these issues and the socio-economic driving factors behind them is thus crucial," Toepfer said today.

Dr. El-Lakany said that this November world leaders will gather in Rome to evaluate progress made since the 1996 World Food Summit in reducing world hunger, focusing in particular on the need to mobilize the political will and the resources to tackle these critical development issues.

The knowledge and technical skills exist to halt the destructive trends in land management, Toepfer said. "But it is political and economic factors, not scientific research that will determine whether or not this knowledge and experience accumulates in libraries or is put into practice."

FAO's desertification website is online at: http://www.fao.org/desertification






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