Today's Editorial

16 November 2016

Halting desertification



Source: By Sriroop Chaudhuri: Deccan Herald



In the last couple of decades, land degr-adation/desertification has grown into an appalling menace to sustainable human development, affecting billions around the world including India, leaving the authorities reeling over dire resource depletion/inadequacy. A major reason for it has been a lack of consensus over a precise definition of desertification.


As per the United Nations Convention for Combating Desertification (UNCCD), desertification is virtually any form of land degradation in the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, resulting from a combination of climatic variations and 'unplanned' human expansion. Desertification, by newer definitions, is no more just about sand dunes and oasis. Today it means the collective damage caused to the world's dryland ecosystems.


In India, combating land degradation/ desertification has emerged as a top environmental priority to the authorities concerned. India is signatory to the UNCCD and intends to achieve land degradation neutral status by 2030. On 17 June 2016 on the occasion of "World Day to Combat Desertification" the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC), and Arid Zone Forest Research Institute (AFRI), jointly released desertification maps of the country. These maps, compiled by the Space Application Centre, Isro along with 19 partner instit-utes, for the 2003-05 and 2011-13 periods, have brought up some disturbing facts.


It appears that about 96.4 million hectares (Mha) land area (29.3% of total landmass) of the country is currently under land degradation/desertification, as compared to about 94.5 Mha (28.7%) during 2003-05. By far, Rajasthan appears to be the hot-seat of degradation/ desertification in the country followed by Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana. Cumulatively, these nine states account for about 23% of the total land area under degradation/desertification in India.


But what bakes the cake really is the state-wise land area under degradation/ desertification. In Jharkhand (68.9%), Rajasthan (62.9%), Delhi (60.6%), Gujarat (52.2%) and Goa (52.1%), over half the land area is under intense threat of land degradation/desertification. To add further to the aggravation, in each on these states/UTs, land degradation/desertification has increased between 2003-05 and 2011-13 period with the 'worst' scenario apparent in Delhi, registering about 11% increase. Desertification/degradation is on steep gradients in the Northeast as well. In Tri-pura, land degradation/desertification increased by about 10.4% between 2003-05 and 2011-13, in Nagaland by 8.7% and Mizoram 4.3%. Overall, in 25 states/UTs, desertification appears to be on the rise.


But why the heck we care for desertification of the drylands? Here is what the drylands do: they constitute about 34% of world's total landmass and are major source of food, especially for the poor. One in three crops cultivated today, including oats, barley, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage and saffron, originated from drylands. About half the world's livestock is concentrated in the drylands.


Recent UNCCD reports suggest that about 52% of world's agricultural land area is moderate to severely degraded. About 12 Mha of productive land are turning barren annually resulting from desertification/drought, toppling cha-nces of about 20 mt of food grains which acutely exacerbates global food crises. As added vice, desertified areas are noted for their long-range adversities on climate. For example, reduction in vegetation (frequently associated with desertification) cover elevates atmospheric aerosol/dust levels which affect cloud formation and rainfall patterns, carbon cycle, and biodiversity.


Visibility crises in Beijing, a well-known menace these days, are believed to have been caused by springtime dust storms originating in the Gobi Desert. "Yellow Dust" from China costs the Korean and Japanese economy huge revenue each year. It is also taken for US air quality deterioration in recent times. In China itself, desertification, leading to recurrent droughts and massive crop-losses, takes a nice bite of the country's annual GDP. Studies find that desertification can hugely magnify global warming in days ahead.


But putting aside the tangible issues regarding food/water shortage, and climate, there are others that do not meet naked eye. One such is forced migration. Desertification is destabilising large communities globally, turning them into migrants and homeless refugees.


Environmental migration


An estimated mob of 60 million will migrate from desertified areas in sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and/or Europe by 2020. By 2050, about 200 million people will turn up as 'perman-ently displaced' environmental migrants. Governmental reports suggest that such displaced mob and forced migrants often take to radicalisation and extremism, inciting brutal resource-driven conflicts.


Environmental migration is largely triggering political instability, terrorist disturbances, and food/water riots across desertified areas, ultimately spilling over to neighbouring lands. So what can we do to halt desertification? Or shall we do anything at all? Monitoring for causes of desertification should be central any action plan. Aberrant climatic shifts are of course the major impaling factor. But other than climate, unleashed human expansion contributes a great deal to desertification:


  1. a) Land covers change (due to urban sprawl): deforestation/logging beyond permissible limits; forest fires/encroachment into forest lands; conversion of native croplands


  1. b) Land management protocol: inadequate soil conservation measures (soil erosion); improper crop rotation /shift in cultivation patterns; improper irrigation schemes (water-logging/leaching); indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals (soil salinisation)


  1. c) Overexploitation of natural resources (overpopulation/demand): overgrazing; unplanned groundwater extraction; inequitable sharing


  1. d) Lack of resources (tools/funds/ trained professionals) to: support innovative dryland agriculture; reclaim water-logged and/or saline soils

These days, climate change also is a ramified effect of human expansion (urbanisation/carbon emission/freshwater abstraction) only. A disturbing fact about desertification is, it is largely irreversible. So, may be its time we seriously gave in to the UN's recent plea "stop deserting the deserts". Other than building up holistic awareness among the common people, a major push should be to establish transnational partnerships to monitor, assess, re-assess and implement stringent actions plans.