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UN conference highlights Spain's threat from desertification

by Staff Writers
Madrid (AFP) Sept 5, 2007
A UN conference on desertification underway in Madrid has thrown the spotlight on the scope of the problem in Spain, which environmentalists say is suffering from an "Africanization" of its climate.

Nearly one-third of Spain's roughly 500,000 square kilometres (200,000 square miles) faces a "significant risk" of desertification, making it one of Europe's most affected nations, according to the Spanish environment ministry.

Speaking Monday on the opening day of the forum, Crown Prince Felipe, the heir to the Spanish throne, said Spain was "especially sensitive to the problems derived from desertification" which he called "one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity".

Over 2,000 representatives from the 191 nations that have signed the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), adopted in Paris in June 1994, are taking part in the gathering which wraps up on September 14.

Six percent of Spain's soil has eroded irreversibly, according to the UN.

While the most affected areas are Spain's Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco and its southeastern Mediterranean coast, only the northernmost regions of Galica, Asturias and Cantabria have been completely spared the effects of desertification.

Environmentalists blame the overuse of water resources, especially by the tourism and farming sectors, combined with climate change.

Spain is warming faster than other parts of the world, leading it to lose 85 percent of the surface area of glaciers in the Pyrenees.

"The country is clearly facing an 'Africanization' of its climate," the environmental lobby group said in a report released just before the start of the UN conference.

"Spain is the country that is the most affected by climate change in all of Europe," it added.

Intensive agriculture, deforestation and a never-ending construction boom, with its sprawling urban projects and mushrooming tourist complexes, add to desertification in Spain, environmentalists say.

"Despite the apparent cooling of the building sector, the plans for growth continue to be as excessive as they are frenetic," one of Spain's biggest green groups, Ecologists in Action, said in a statement issued at the conference.

Over the next five to 10 years, 540,000 new homes are planed for the Costa del Sol, which is sometimes mocked as the "Costa del Concrete" for its overdeveloped coastline, the group said.

Another half a million homes are planned for the southeastern Spanish region of Murcia over the next 30 years while another million homes are forecast for the capital Madrid and its surrounding areas over the next two decades.

Spain suffers doubly from desertification. While its own soil is eroding, the country has in recent years received waves of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who are escaping poverty partly caused by desertification.

Desertification has "led to the movement of millions of people who are fleeing countries that are increasingly affected by desertification and thus by poverty, something Spain knows very well," Spanish Environment Minister Cristina Narbona said Monday.

Spain has proposed that the European Union set up a centre for the study of drought and desertification in the northeastern city of Barcelona, she said.

The Madrid gathering is the UN's eighth conference on the fight against desertification. The last gathering was held in the Kenyan capital Nairobi in October 2005.

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