‘More people die of drought than all other calamities put together’

Droughts are getting worse due to climate change; treating wastelands is the only viable answer, says the head of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification
<p>Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, at COP23 [image by: Maggie Mazzetti]</p>

Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, at COP23 [image by: Maggie Mazzetti]

In 2015, when governments were asked what they would like to do to combat climate change, why did more than 140 countries include the issue of soil? Because of drought, says Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

“You can all see the social and political consequences of migration from Africa to Europe. But do you realise that 100% of migrants are coming from drylands?” Barbut asked, while talking to a group of journalists at the recent UN Climate summit in Bonn.

“The only asset of most people is land, and that asset is becoming less and less productive all the time due to climate change. Every year, more people die of drought than of all other calamities put together. This year, 25 million people in the Horn of Africa have been left without means to feed themselves,” she elaborated.

Solutions are available – land can be restored at less than USD 300 per acre – and this, according to Barbut, is a must to feed the growing population of the world. Some 4 million hectares of new land must be in production every year.

So where will this new land come from? The only solution is to restore degraded land – of which there are 2 billion hectares. Restoring just 300 million hectares of degraded land would ensure global food security ’til 2050, according to Barbut. It will also close the carbon dioxide emission gap by a third.

Much noise is made about other ways to combat climate change, but “this does not get any publicity because most of the cost is labour cost, and there are no large companies involved”, said the UNCCD head. “But restoring land does improve soil carbon sequestration, so this is starting to generate some interest.”

Be prepared

In an era of climate change, all countries need to be prepared for droughts, Barbut believes. Three countries have drought preparedness systems – the US, Australia and Israel.

The UNCCD has started a drought preparedness initiative in the form of the Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) Fund, which hopes to gather USD 300 million by the start of 2018, the largest after the renewable energy fund. Barbut said the plan is to use the money in the same way as the renewable energy fund, by using the grant money as a guarantee to design bankable projects.

Twelve million hectares of land are destroyed each year due to unsustainable farming practices and climate change. “We want to restore an equal amount each year to reach neutrality by 2030,” Barbut said.

It is not enough for the UNCCD to have tree-planting projects to keep deserts at bay, Barbut has found. Instead, the organisation must get into related issues.

“Lack of land rights causes desertification,” she said. Water conflicts between herders and farmers are increasing everywhere. What the organisation is trying to do around the world is nothing less than to restore the sustainability of agriculture – especially in marginal and rain-fed farms – in an era of climate change, so that the foundation on which human civilisation has rested for more than 10,000 years may be maintained.