Desertification represents one of the "greatest environmental challenges of our times" and, coupled with global warming, could set off mass migrations of people fleeing degraded homelands, a United Nations report warned Thursday.
The report called on governments in arid regions to revise rules on land use to halt overgrazing and unsustainable irrigation practices. It also urged better coordinated policies to address the problem of desertification.
"It is imperative that effective policies and sustainable agricultural practices be put in place to reverse the decline of drylands," says Hans van Ginkel, a professor at the United Nations University, which produced the report.
"Addressing desertification is a critical and essential part of adapting to climate change and mitigating global biodiversity losses," Van Ginkel said.
The report said about 2 billion people, a third of the Earth's population, are potential victims of desertification, which is defined as land degraded by human activities like farming and grazing.
50 million on the run?
If the problem is left unchecked, some 50 million people could be forced from their homes over the next decade, the report said.
The report, the work of more than 200 experts from 25 countries, said policies on preventing desertification are often inconsistent, frequently not implemented at local levels or inadvertently fuel conflict over land, water and other resources.
Funding is also a problem, with major donor nations cutting funding by 29 percent at the last Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 2005, the report said.
"What is happening is that policy makers and politicians are not aware of the gravity of the situation. They are not putting in adequate resource to meet the challenge," said Zafar Adeel, lead author of the analysis and director of the United Nation University's International Network on Water, Environment and Health.
"As the problem is getting bigger, the resources allocated are getting smaller," Adeel said. "There is a fundamental problem on the policy side in not understanding the linkage between efforts to reduce poverty, meet the land use development goals and combating desertification."
Financial incentives advised
Along with reforming land use policies, Adeel said, governments could provide financial incentives for herders and other dryland users to preserve threatened land while giving them greater authority over what often is communal land.
Governments could also work to create less destructive livelihoods for desert communities, including promoting eco-tourism and solar power, he said.
"If they are done appropriately, policies that reinforce alternative livelihoods are a strong tool for preventing desertification," Adeel said. "Eco-tourism is something that is very popular. If done correctly, it doesn't pose a huge burden on natural ecosystems."
The full report is online at www.inweh.unu.edu/inweh.