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The Challenge Of Desertification

Left unchecked, the number of people at risk of displacement due to severe desertification is an estimated 50 million over the next 10 years -- migrants worldwide equal in number to the entire population of South Africa or South Korea.
by William M. Reilly
UPI U.N. Correspondent
United Nations (UPI) June 28, 2007
Climate change manifests itself in many ways in different parts of the globe. While flooding is the fear of small island states and seaside communities in several parts of the globe, it is desertification in many other regions, fertile fields transformed into "drylands," threatening international stability.

Desertification has been dubbed "the greatest environmental challenge of our times."

A new analysis from the U.N. University presented Thursday at U.N. World Headquarters in New York advises governments to overhaul policy approaches to the issue or face mass migrations of people driven from degraded homelands within a single generation.

Experts say the loss of soil productivity and the degradation of life-support services provided by nature pose imminent threats to global stability. To answer the threat they propose policy reform at nearly every level of government.

"It is imperative that effective policies and sustainable agricultural practices be put in place to reverse the decline of drylands," says Professor Hans van Ginkel, a U.N. undersecretary-general and rector of UNU.

He said land-use policy reform is urgently needed to halt overgrazing, over-exploitation, trampling and unsustainable irrigation practices. The reform of drylands policy is needed just as much as policies to create livelihood alternatives for dry land populations.

Some 200 experts from 25 countries, after an in-depth look at desertification, penned an analysis of the problem in Algiers late last year. It urged governments to adopt a broader, overarching view and a more coordinated, integrated approach to dealing with desertification, climate change, poverty reduction and other public concerns.

It highlighted dozens of problems and inconsistencies in policy-making at every level, saying decisions were often taken in isolated sections, with some end results counterproductive.

"Some forces of globalization, while striving to reduce economic inequality and eliminate poverty are contributing to worsening desertification. Perverse agricultural subsidies are one such example," said van Ginkel.

But, it's mass migration that raises the greatest fear of international instability.

One-third of all people -- about 2 billion -- are potential victims of desertification's creeping effect, UNU said.

Left unchecked, the number of people at risk of displacement due to severe desertification is an estimated 50 million over the next 10 years -- migrants worldwide equal in number to the entire population of South Africa or South Korea.

"Addressing desertification is a critical and essential part of adaptation to climate change and mitigation of global biodiversity losses," says van Ginkel. "UNU has led the argument over the last decade that such inter-linkages in policy formulations must be taken."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month said desertification contributed to the humanitarian crisis in Sudan's troubled Darfur region, where more than 200,000 persons are estimated to have died and more than 2 million people have been displaced as a result of conflict. The desert is fast encroaching on far

The UNU report urged governments to better define and understand environmental migration, its economic and ecological consequences and to create a global framework to legally recognize and assist environmental refugees.

Expected climatic change scenarios as recently projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the U.N. World Meteorological Organization and U.N. Environment Program, add another dark side to the already gloomy picture.

But it is difficult to properly quantify the number of environmental migrants and their migration routes when academics cannot yet agree on the different types.

The UNU seeks classifications of environmentally motivated migrants, environmentally forced migrants and environmental refugees.

It says the main barrier to expanding isolated successes at combating desertification is "the lack of effective management policies."

In some countries policies are deemed good, but enactment and implementation falls short; national plans fail local implementation; some policies promote exacerbating competition where there is conflict over land use and natural resources.

The report urges governments and policy-makers to realize aridity and water scarcity are not inevitable; to create financial incentives for dry land users to preserve and enhance ecosystem services, and to foster alternative, sustainable livelihoods for dry land dwellers, including in industry and tourism.

It also suggests policy makers and governments yield ownership and decision making to communities, empowering them to take charge of land; promote greater transparency and accountability, better educate local populations and policymakers, put science at the heart of policy making, beef up research, and improve coordination at all levels.

UNU suggests harmonizing policies across government ministries and agencies, linking development, reducing poverty and environmental policies and encouraging integration.

Source: United Press International

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