published on 5 May 2012 in air

Rio and the battle against desertification

The Rio Conventions: focus on UNCCD
In Rio, two other great challenges for sustainable development, which are closely connected with the climate challenge, were identified: the fight against desertification and against the loss of biodiversity. In this connection, two known conventions of the United Nations were born: the framework convention UNCCD, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, officially established in 1994, and CBD, Convention on Biological Diversity that became effective in 1993.
Even though, in the past 20 years, climate policies have catalyzed the attention of the Governments, of the media and of society, the design of the policies of the two ‘sister’ conventions developed along the same lines as the climate policies, highlighting the synergies and potential trade-offs. Since the dynamics regarding land use, climate and biodiversity are closely interconnected, the three Conventions collaborate in order to provide a response with an integrated approach to the more urgent global challenges, with the intention to preserve and utilize natural resources of our planet in the best possible manner.
The Countries that signed the Convention to Fight Desertification work together to improve the living conditions of the populations living in arid areas with the risk of desertification, and to maintain and restore productivity of the land and the soil, and mitigate the effects of the famines. In the strategy of the Convention adopted in 2007, for the decade 2008-2018, the signatory Countries specified the following goals: “ to build a global partnership to contrast and prevent desertification and land degradation, and to mitigate the effects of drought in the affected areas, in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability”.
UNCCD pays particular attention to the promotion of a bottom-up approach, whose aim is to encourage participation of the local population in fighting desertification and degradation of the land, and to facilitate North-South cooperation, mainly with regard to the transfer of technology and know-how for sustainable land management.
In the previous two articles, we have already highlighted the critical points in the climate policies, that are tied not only to the differences between the North and South in terms of historical responsibility and socioeconomic vulnerability, but also the uncertainty from the point of view of climate science. Let us now see which are the main challenges and critical points on the topic of desertification1: a topic that is surely less evident but equally crucial for sustainability.

NOTE 1: The article refers to a previous paper by the author, entitled ‘La desertificazione, i costi dell’inazione e la valutazione delle opzioni di adattamento al cambiamento climatico’ (Desertification, the cost of inaction and an assessment of the options for adapting to the change in climate), by G. Gambarelli, C. Giupponi, A. Goria, APAT-CMCC, National Conference on Climate , 2008

The complex nature of the desertification process: anthropic and climatic causes

Desertification is a process of “degradation of the land in arid, semi arid and sub-humid dry areas, resulting from various factors, among which climatic variations and human activities”, where the arid, semi-arid and sub-humid dry areas are represented by those “areas, excluding the Arctic and Antarctic areas, in which the ratio of annual precipitation to potential evapotranspiration ranges from 0.05 to 0.65” (UNCCD, 1994). UNCCD has defined desertification as “the reduction or the disappearance of the productivity and biological or economic complexity of cultivated lands, both irrigated and non, grasslands, pastures, forests or wooded surfaces, caused by the systems which exploit the land, or from one or more processes, including those which derive from the activity of man and from his way of settling the land, among which are:
i) soil erosion provoked by wind erosion and water erosion;
ii) deterioration of the physical, chemical, biological or economic properties of the land;
iii) the long term loss of natural vegetation”.
Desertification can therefore be attributed to both natural phenomena – such as the climate and the related water cycle – and to anthropic phenomena, i.e. the use of resources and in particular the ways in which the management of our soil resources interact with the water cycle. While in other human activities, that are responsible for the greenhouse effect, it is easier to identify a univocal relation between the emissions of greenhouse gases that are produced => climatic variations => and impacts, in the case of desertification – due to the synergy of climatic and anthropic factors – it is more difficult to identify the sequence of the elements that determine the process. The co-action of anthropic and natural determining factors, to which climate changes contribute in a direct, but also and mainly in an indirect manner, becomes apparent firstly through the water balance and its interactions with the soil segment (draught, erosion, etc.). Desertification in fact is closely connected with climatic characteristics such as aridity, draught, the erosive power of the precipitations. Therefore a variation in these factors in a certain territorial context, following climatic changes, inevitably implies variations in the intensity of the desertification phenomena, that further alter the climatic variables. These dynamics generate a cascade of disturbance effects on the system, that interact with the conditions of vulnerability of the area and cause a worsening in the degradation of the soil, and of the desertification processes, as illustrated in Figure 1. If, in the past, greater emphasis was laid on the role of human action, in the third report of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2001), the analysis of the available scientific literature was not able to clarify the dynamics between these two determining factors. The report highlighted the role of non sustainable practices in agriculture and pastures, and deforestation, as the main causes of desertification. With regard to the changes in climate, the report showed how desertification led to impacts on the climate, through an increase in the surface temperature of the ground as a consequence of the changes in the vegetation or due to the effects of the change in the absorption power of carbon, or methane emissions in the desertified areas, therefore emphasizing their contribution to climate changes. The fourth and more recent IPCC report (4AR, 2007) highlights that ‘the climate change and the anthropic pressure tied to land utilization, probably involve synergic impacts on the ecosystems and on the species of the desert areas, that could be compensated at least partly by benefits in terms of productivity of the vegetation and carbon sequestration due to the increased CO2 in the atmosphere’. There is a high probability that net effect of these trends, will vary from region to region. Therefore the report, that clarifies the dynamics, however illustrates a very uncertain picture of the amount of the real impacts and the distribution of the impacts of the climate change on desertification in the different regions of the world. If, up to date, research was concentrated on two distinct lines: respectively on the topic of desertification and the degradation of the soil and on the topic of climate changes – in a study area that is decidedly more consolidated – the policies invoke an integrated approach that will require great efforts in the field of research and in the direction of an assessment that also integrates these phenomena.

Socioeconomic dimension of desertification
The main effects of desertification that have been recognized in literature, can be seen in the decrease in soil fertility, in its capacity to hold water and the productivity of the vegetation, with a consequent decrease in the harvests in agriculture, in cattle productivity, in the forest biomass and in the biodiversity of the vegetation. These effects lead to practices in land use that are less and less sustainable, and these in turn can further exacerbate the desertification process. Besides the direct impacts mentioned above, the desertification processes can lead to a whole series of indirect socioeconomic impacts, which obviously will depend on the local characteristics.
Figure 2 represents many of the possible effects of desertification, distinguishing between physical, direct and indirect socioeconomic impacts. From the figure it is easy to gather some important aspects:

  • some impacts are much easier to quantify than others: for example to give a value to the loss of productivity in agriculture following the degradation of the soil is relatively easier than quantifying the effect on the loss of biodiversity;
  • some indirect impacts are the result of a complex set of “forces of pressure” that, added to the desertification, lead to a determined result: for example social conflicts for the use of water are surely the result of water scarcity, exacerbated by desertification, but also by bad management practices, such as a lack of efficient irrigation systems, cultivation of species that require abundant amounts of water, leaks in the pipelines, illegal collection, etc.
  • some impacts have effects not only inside the circumscribed area affected by desertification, but they also affect the surrounding areas – as in the case of the migration of people from the countryside to the cities, or may even have global effects, as in the case of the loss of biodiversity;
  • some impacts of desertification, such as the loss of the vegetable covering, also following wildfires, also affect carbon sequestration and therefore these also affect the mitigation of the changes in climate. If on a local level the negative effect on mitigation is surely negligible, on a global scale the problem has a certain relevance;

From these short reflections it is possible to see the difficulties that an assessment of the impact involves in the case of desertification, these are not only tied to the joint effect of anthropic and climatic factors in the determination of the phenomenon, but also to the multiple aspects of the socioeconomic effects of the phenomenon itself. The complex nature of these dynamics also makes the choice of the policies difficult, as these are complicated by the fact that the policies to combat desertification can contribute to adaptation strategies as well as mitigation of the climate change, often carrying out a ‘mixed’ role. In fact the measures to combat desertification are generally concentrated on the soil-vegetation processes and the water cycle, and therefore on specific environmental policies that include the rationalization of the use of the water resources, measures regarding agriculture and forests, and soil protection. It is evident that some of these measures, such as a recovery of the productive value of the soil through reforestation, are, at the same time, measures that mitigate global climate change, in terms of a decrease in the emissions, but also of adaptation to the impacts of climate changes and to contrast desertification through the protection of the soil and maintenance of its biological and economic productivity. Also from the source IPCC, the two following tables show the possible direction of the impacts that are expected in Southern Europe, and the available estimates on the impacts obtained from various sources. As it can be noted, in Europe there are highly negative impacts on the availability of water and on productivity in the forests and agricultural sectors, especially during the summer period, and on biodiversity.

Towards Rio+20
From this short description of the critical aspects and the complex nature of the economic assessment of the impacts and the actions to combat desertification, it is increasingly clear that there is a need to adopt an integrated approach in the analysis methods and in the design of desertification policies in the context of sustainability. Also the mitigation and adaptation policies regarding climate changes, in order to respond to the criteria of efficiency, efficacy and equity, will have to incorporate the assessment of strategies to combat desertification, besides protecting biodiversity. A very recent report, prepared by the community of international experts for UNCCD2, denounces how the poor attention paid to the resource “land” is what is missing ,in order to obtain a sustainable development. The report claims that at Rio+20, an agreement must be reached, on a goal for sustainable management of the land, as a pre-requisite in order to guarantee water, food and energy in the future. In order to face the demand for food that is estimated to increase 50% by 2030, and the demand for energy and water that will increase 45 and 30% respectively, 120 million hectares more of productive land will be necessary, in order to sustain the required production of food. The report states that every year, approximately 12 million hectares of productive land are lost due to the degradation of the land and desertification. On the same amount of land, it would be possible to grow 20 million tons of cereals. On a global scale it is estimated that the degradation of the land impacts the life of 1 and a half billion people. And since land use continues to be the centre of competition for agriculture, forestry, stock farming, energy production, urbanization and extraction of raw materials, it is increasingly important to have policies that make land use the focal point of a course towards sustainability. At Rio+20, the scientific community will present the proposal to reach the goal of a ‘net’ degradation of the land equal to zero by 2030, and also by 2030, the goal of a ‘net’ degradation of the forests equal to zero, besides the goal to implement policies to face draught in all the Countries with a higher risk by 2020. And always at Rio+20, the experts will propose the following, analogously to the proposals made for climate change:

  • a more solid international institutional context, such as, for example, a UNCCD Protocol on the use of land and soil, to allow a global action that is rapid and on the required scale;
  • the creation of an Intergovernmental Panel/Platform on Land and Soil, to carry out the function of a transparent and credible international scientific authority, on the topic.
  • the preparation of an exhaustive assessment on the economics of land degradation

Integrated assessment and integration of the policies – use of the soil, degradation of the soil and the forests- desertification, climate, energy and biodiversity are the key words of the future global policies in view of sustainability. And it will not be possible to neglect the topic of desertification, that rotates around a crucial focal point regarding use of the land, any more.

NOTE 2: A Sustainable Development Goal for Rio+20: Zero Net Land Degradation, UNCCD, May 2012

Edited by Alessandra Goria

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