Najib Saab 19/6/2022

The fifteenth session of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which was held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, garnered little publicity. Although the UNCCD has been ratified by 196 states, no less than those that signed the Paris Climate Agreement, the world still considers desertification a local problem that does not rise to the rank of a global challenge. This was well reflected in the results, as the summit failed to adopt a binding plan to deal with droughts, which affect large areas and threaten food security and human health. In the last two years alone, Africa was hit by 14 severe droughts. However, this has not been enough to spur countries to make commitments based on a timetable, similar to the Kyoto Protocol formula for cutting carbon emissions and the International Climate Fund pledges in the Paris Agreement.

In fact, most countries still refuse to consider desertification a global problem, even though the facts prove otherwise. Drought has begun to hit large areas in North America and Europe, at an accelerating rate, compounded by rising temperatures and altered seasons due to climate change. Because drought will be more severe in Africa and the eastern Mediterranean basin, it will lead to increased waves of displacement towards the west, for millions of people seeking a place that can offer basic necessities of life. While African countries most affected by desertification and drought, backed by other countries in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, called for a binding agreement with appropriate funding, western countries responded that desertification could be tackled within existing financing mechanisms, including those for climate change. While this argument seems logical to avoid duplication, climate finance suffers from a large deficit as well, and climate priorities may be different. A compromise was reached by postponing a decision on the matter to the 16th summit, which Saudi Arabia offered to host in Riyadh in 2024. While it’s true that the Abidjan meeting decided to rehabilitate one billion hectares of desertified lands around the world by 2030, some are skeptical about the possibility of achieving this ambitious goal with the absence of sufficient funding, fearing that it will meet the fate of similar goals set by previous meetings. A case in point is the Great Green Wall initiative, launched in 2007 to green 8,000 km across the African continent, which has failed to achieve more than 15 percent of its set goals.

Suffice to understand the seriousness of the problem is to recall that two-thirds of Africa and some regions of West Asia, including Arab countries, are natural deserts or dry lands, with limited productivity. More importantly is that 65 percent of the remaining arable land has been degraded due to mismanagement, wars and conflicts. A study presented at the Abidjan summit showed that Africa loses 4 million hectares of forest annually due to logging for firewood and charcoal production, which is still a major source of fuel in poor areas. This makes acquiring reliable and secure sources of energy an urgent priority to combat desertification and climate change, whether generated from sun and wind or from oil and gas.

The summit coincided with fierce sandstorms that hit several Arab countries, from the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to Iraq, Syria and Jordan. This is another evidence of the expanding problems of desertification and drought, due to climate change and the effects of wars and unbalanced urban expansion. It is true that spring is the sandstorms season in the region, but this year they were more severe and frequent. For example, Baghdad witnessed 10 huge storms per month, while in the past those were between 1-3 storms. Sandstorms covered the sky of many Arab cities with a red layer, causing health problems and forcing schools and businesses to close.

The World Bank estimates the losses caused by sandstorms in Arab countries at more than 13 billion dollars annually, mostly in the agricultural sector, airports, ports and roads, as well as human health. And because the temperature in the Arab region is rising at a speed that is more than twice the global average, with an acute shortage of rain, this is sure to cause an increase in drought and sandstorms. The Saudi initiative to green vast areas of its lands, and to participate with neighboring countries in expanding the green cover by planting billions of trees, is the largest program in the region to manage dry areas and address desertification and sandstorms.

Many people confuse the desert as a natural system with its own characteristics that must be preserved, and desertification, which is the transformation of fertile land into unproductive land, due to human activities. This ranges from the elimination of vegetation cover due to urban sprawl, neglect, overgrazing and the felling of trees to produce charcoal, to intensive agricultural practices that are robbing the land of its fertile components. Therefore, combating desertification and land degradation is not limited to afforestation, but is rather an integrated process involving land management and development.

Although desertification is a global problem, the effects are most severe for farmers in poor countries, where the economic losses of fertile land degradation are enormous. The developments of the war in Ukraine have proven that local production is the greatest guarantee for achieving food security, which necessitates the preservation of every inch of arable land. The first task is to build local capacities, transfer technology, exchange experiences and encourage the use of local plant species. It is also required to attract more investments to agricultural and rural development, focusing on helping individual farmers and families working in the agricultural sector, and supporting their ability to own land. Bearing the responsibility of preserving the value of owned agricultural land protects it and raises production. But all this will not be enough if strict standards for land use are not set, which maintain a balance between different uses and preserve the natural systems. Perhaps the most important outcome of the discussions on combating desertification in recent meetings is the consensus on the need to cooperate with various international agreements, especially climate and biodiversity, to avoid repetition and overlapping, and to attract greater funding for integrated projects. Studies have shown that every dollar spent in maintaining the productivity of land and preventing its degradation yields a return of up to 30 dollars.

The problems of climate, desertification and biodiversity are interlinked, and addressing one of them benefits the other, which requires integrated approaches based on tackling them all together. Facing urgent challenges, such as halting desertification and eradicating poverty, cannot wait until the climate problem is resolved.