How to fight desertification and drought at home and away
A growing human population and runaway consumption are
putting unsustainable pressures on the natural resources we depend on
for survival. Our misuse and abuse of land and water is changing fertile land
The word “desertification” conjures up images of the
spread of existing deserts, with tall dunes spilling into villages and farmer’s
fields. But it is actually a term that describes the way land can be
transformed by climate variation and human activities, including
deforestation, overgrazing (which causes erosion), the cultivation of
unsuitable land and other poor land-use management decisions. We see this now
in southern Africa, which has already lost at least 25 per cent of
its soil fertility. But not only developing countries are at risk. Almost
1 billion tonnes of soil is lost every year because of erosion resulting
from poor land management in Europe alone. Desertification is one of the
biggest environmental problems facing humanity and has already affected over
40 per cent of the world’s population of 3.2 billion people.
Given that climate change could cause more
frequent droughts and that population growth puts more pressure on natural
resources, land degradation is an increasing global threat to food security, a
contributor to poverty and a barrier to achieving the United Nation’s
Sustainable Development Goals. It is clear that desertification is a problem of
global proportions, requiring a unified strategy among all countries. If action
is not taken now, desertification will accelerate, resulting in further
migration and conflict.
Not all areas are equally at risk of desertification.
Drylands, like those in the Karoo of South Africa and the prairies of Canada,
are regions where evapotranspiration (the transfer of water from land and
plants to the atmosphere) far exceeds precipitation. Under natural conditions,
drylands are characterised by slow cycles of changing climate and vegetation,
moving from one stable state to another. More frequent and severe droughts and
human disturbances, such as agriculture, grazing and fire, cause more abrupt
shifts that can be irreversible.
The threat of land degradation is so widely recognized
that the UN established the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)
nearly 25 years ago, in 1994. It is a legally binding agreement between the
partner nations to work together to achieve sustainable land management. All
member countries of the UNCCD recently agreed to fight desertification and
restore degraded land by 2030. On June 17, Ecuador hosted the World Day to
Combat Desertification, under the slogan “Land has true value – Invest in it,”
and used the occasion to showcase the use of sustainable land management in
developing the country’s bio-economy.
Despite its initial commitment to combat desertification, Canada
withdrew from the UNCCD in 2013. The reasons were unclear, but it may have been
because membership was seen as too costly, without obvious benefits for the
environment. The departure left Canada as the only country not party to the
agreement. However, Canada rejoined last year, acknowledging the link
between desertification and many of Canada’s development priorities. The
factors driving land degradation are interconnected and include population
growth and migration, climate change and biodiversity loss.
Current rates of global land degradation are in the
order of 12 million hectares per year. And yet food production must
increase by up to 70 per cent by 2050 to feed the projected global population
of 9.1 billion people. Current land-management practices are clearly
unsustainable. The threatened area is so large that halting land degradation
and scaling up solutions, from farms and villages to watersheds and
continents, requires globally coordinated solutions. By rejoining the UNCCD,
Canada can take its rightful place within a coordinated global effort to combat
desertification and strengthen its own efforts nationally.
Canada has already cooperated on a regional level with
other countries to combat drought and minimise the impacts of reduced
agricultural productivity, wildfires and water shortages. In 2016, for example,
when droughts hounded North America, burning Fort McMurray, Alberta and
adding to California’s long-running water shortage, Canada cooperated with
the United States and Mexico to minimise their impacts. The resulting
North American Climate Services Partnership (NACSP) facilitated an early
drought forecasting system and drought impact assessments.
In addition, Canada faces its own land degradation
challenges. Most people associate dryland regions with a hot and dry climate.
However, large parts of the Canadian Prairie provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan
and Manitoba – can be classified as drylands. They are also enormously
important agricultural areas, accounting for 60 per cent of the cropland and 80
per cent of the rangeland in Canada. The Prairies expect to see longer and
more intense periods of drought interspersed with major flooding with
future climate change. And although North America is one of five regions
identified by the UN as facing relatively fewer challenges related to land compared
to the countries most at risk, the region does face significant water stress
challenges. The Paris Agreement recognized “safeguarding food security” as an
important priority for climate change adaptation, which goes hand-in-hand with
The agricultural sector will play an important role in
mitigating the impacts of climate change and fighting land degradation. It can
protect against drought, flooding, landslides and erosion while maintaining
natural vegetation, which helps store carbon in the soil. But agricultural
production will also have to become more efficient. It will need to adapt
to periods of lower water availability and take measures to preserve fertile
soil. We must also look to how we manage our water resources to help
agriculture adapt to climate change and stop desertification.
The University of Saskatchewan is currently
developing tools that can be used by government and in research to predict
and manage the water flow and water quality of Canada’s large river basins.
This will allow water to be managed at the scale of entire river basins and
help determine how industry, agriculture and mining can fairly share this
Canada has, for now, recognized the link between
desertification and many of its development priorities, including agriculture,
security, water and renewable energy. But we need to ensure the Canadian
government remains committed to combating drought and desertification here and
in the rest of the world.
Source: The Conversation. Author: Andrew Slaughter – Visiting professor, University of Saskatchewan, Canada