(Jun 28, 2007)

UN warns that desertification is biggest environmental challenge

By Michael Casey
From AP

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) - Desertification represents the ''greatest environmental challenge of our times'' and governments must tackle it or face mass migrations of people driven from their degraded homelands, a U.N. report warned Thursday.

About 2 billion people - one third of the earth's population - are potential victims of desertification, which is defined as land degraded due to human activities like farming and grazing, the United Nations said.

Left unchecked, desertification could displace up to 50 million people over the next 10 years around the world, a wave of migrants equal in number to the populations of South Africa or South Korea, the report said.

The report calls on governments in arid regions to reform their land-use policies to halt overgrazing and unsustainable irrigation practices and better coordinate measures to address the problem of desertification. Insufficient funding is exacerbating the problems, the report says.

''It is imperative that effective policies and sustainable agricultural practices be put in place to reverse the decline of drylands,'' says Prof. Hans van Ginkel, a rector 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.''

The report _ produced by more than 200 experts from 25 countries following a meeting last held in Algeria _ says anti-desertification policies are often inconsistent, not implemented at local levels or are inadvertently fueling conflicts over land and other resources.

Funding is also a problem, the report said, with major donors actually pledging 29 percent less at the last Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 2005 than the amount requested by affected countries.

''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 Nations University's International Network on Water, Environment and Health.

''As the problem is getting bigger, the resources allocated are getting smaller,'' Adeel said in a telephone interview from Toronto. ''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.''

Along with reforming land use policies, Adeel said governments could provide financial incentives for farmers and herders 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 ecotourism and solar power as well as carbon sequestration, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases by burying carbon emissions.

''If they are done appropriately, policies that reinforce alternative livelihoods are a strong tool for preventing desertification,'' Adeel said. ''Ecotourism is something that is very popular. If done correctly, it doesn't pose a huge burden on natural ecosystems.''


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