How world is losing fertile land

Source: By Amitabh Sinha: The Indian Express

India has hosted the meeting of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. A major global agreement on issues related to land, the convention (UNCCD) seeks to address the phenomenon of desertification, the process through which fertile and productive land become degraded and unfit for useful activities like agriculture.

The UNCCD meeting takes place every two years and the last one in Greater Noida is the 14th such meeting. At the end of talks on 13 September 2019, the conference come out with New Delhi declaration on the decisions taken here to deal with desertification.

variety of factorsboth natural and human-induced, are known to be affecting the productivity of land, and making them desert-like. Increasing populations and the resultant rise in demand for food and water, feed for cattle, and a wide variety of ecosystem services these offer, have prompted human beings to clear forests, use chemicals, cultivate multiple crops, and over-exploit groundwater. This has affected both the health and productivity of land. Natural processes such as rising global temperatures increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, and changing weather patterns have put further pressure on the land.

A recent report by the International Resources Panel, a scientific body hosted by the UN Environment Programme, said that about 25 per cent of world’s land area has been degraded. Another report, by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, said that nearly 40 per cent of world’s population was being impacted negatively because of land degradation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) too came out with a special report on land a few months ago, in which it said that the rate of soil erosion in many areas of the world was up to 100 times faster than the rate of soil formation. It also said the annual area of drylands in drought had been increasing at more than 1 per cent every year in the last 50 years, and that nearly 500 million people lived in areas that have experienced desertification after the 1980s.

Desertification has implications for food and water security, livelihoods, migration, conflicts and even international security. Combating desertification refers to activities that prevent or reduce land degradation, and restore partially or fully degraded land.

The UNCCD is one of three Conventions that have come out of the historic 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It is, however, possibly the least known of the three. The Rio summit gave rise to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) under which countries have agreed to restrict the emissions of greenhouse gases, first through the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and now through the Paris Agreement that was finalised in 2015 and becomes operational next year. It also gave rise to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which too has delivered an international arrangement to protect and use biodiversity. The UNCCD has not yet resulted in any international treaty or protocol to fight desertification. The UNFCCC holds its general meetings every year, while CBD and CCD meet every two years.

At the time the UNCCD was born in Rio, degradation of land was mostly viewed as a localised problem, one that was mainly affecting countries in Africa. In fact, it was on the demand of the African countries that CCD came into being. The Convention repeatedly makes a mention of the special needs of Africa in fighting desertification.

Over the years, it has become increasingly clear that land degradation was impacting the global network of food and commodity supply chains and was getting impacted in return. The crops being grown and the quantities in which they were being grown were dictated not by local needs but by global demands. Changes in food habits and international trade have altered cropping patterns in many areas. Large-scale migration to urban centres and industrial hubs has seen a heavy concentration of populations in small areas, putting unsustainable pressure on land and water resources. As an issue, therefore, land degradation of land is, therefore, much more complex than it appears.

Land has always been an important conversation in the climate change debate. That is because land affects, and is affected by, climate change. Forests, trees and vegetation cover are important sinks of carbon dioxide. Land degradation, therefore, reduces the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed, and consequently leads to a rise in emissions.

At the same time, agriculture and activities such as cattle rearing contribute to emissions and are a major source of methane which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Restoration of degraded land can, therefore, have major co-benefits for climate change objectives.

According to the report by the International Resources Panel referred to earlier, restoring 350 million hectares of degraded landscape by 2030 would take out between 13 to 26 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. This would more than offset the emissions from activities like agriculture and cattle-rearing. The IPCC report mentioned earlier had estimated that such activities contribute about 25 per cent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, or about 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

A meeting of the UNCCD is not expected to come up with any headline-grabbing decision. The discussions at the CCD have so far remained academic and technical, mainly focusing on the kinds of activities that can be undertaken to restore degraded lands. During the conference that is ending on 13 September 2019, India announced that it would restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.