Advancing Deserts Forcing People to Move
Published on Monday, June 26, 2006 by the Inter Press Service
Advancing Deserts Forcing People to Move
by Ramesh Jaura
BERLIN - Creeping desertification affects every fifth inhabitant in the world, and it might force some 60 million to migrate from sub-Saharan Africa to northern Africa and Europe by 2020, according to experts.

The merciless transformation of arable and habitable land to desert where not even a blade of grass grows drew the focus at a conference last week (Jun. 19-21) in Tunis in which some 400 scientists and policy-makers from the world's parched regions participated.

The three-day conference titled the 'Future of Drylands' was co-organised by the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Highlighting its nagging concern about desertification, UNESCO says in a media release posted on its website: "Desertification directly affects the lives of more than 250 million people and threatens another 1.2 billion in 110 countries."

An estimated 60 million of those affected in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to move towards northern Africa and Europe by 2020, it cautions.

"The economic impact is also considerable," says UNESCO. "Lost agricultural production due to drought and desertification costs an estimated 42 billion dollars annually. Another 2.4 billion dollars is spent each year fighting land degradation, and the problem is likely to worsen."

The warning comes at the right point in time: this year marks the UN International Year of Deserts and Desertification and the tenth anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

"It's sort of a wake-up call," said Bernhard Klocke, deputy director of the German Agricultural Museum at the reputed University of Hohenheim in southwestern Germany.

"But it's intriguing that we haven't yet gone far in fixing the problem that should concern everyone, though UNCCD enjoys a truly universal membership," Klocke told IPS.

The global desertification convention has been ratified by 191 countries and regional organisations. And it is the only internationally recognised legally binding instrument that addresses the problem of land degradation in dryland rural areas.

Uwe Holtz, professor at the University of Bonn and member of the panel of eminent personalities who support the UNCCD, also underlined the need to implement the convention full-heatedly.

"Land and in particular the topsoil are the skin of planet Earth. The skin is suffering from 'cancer', from land degradation and soil erosion," Holtz said.

"Since desertification is linked to many other problems such as poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, conflict and migration, greater public awareness and political will are required to tackle this kind of cancer," he told IPS.

Holtz -- who was a member of the German parliament for more than 20 years and a member of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe -- also pointed to the significant role parliamentarians can play in influencing public opinion and government policies.

"Parliamentarians are opinion leaders and representatives of the people; in democratic countries of the North and the South they play a crucial role in shaping policies and budgetary processes," Holtz said.

He urged them to "do their utmost in strengthening the political will, which is essential for the successful implementation of the UNCCD and for the achievement of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals)."

"Without a successful combat against desertification, sustainable human development for millions of people is out of reach," said Holtz, well known for his commitment to creating a more balanced world that allows the poorest to live in dignity.

Very much along the line of argumentation taken by Holtz, the Tunis declaration emerging from the last week's conference stresses the need for creating "an enabling environment" for the successful implementation of the multilateral environmental agreements and to achieve the MDGs.

The declaration posted also urges civil society, national authorities and the international community "to place combating desertification and development of drylands as a major priority."

In particular, it asks public, private, national and international institutions "to step up their efforts in providing funding for demand driven, integrated and application-oriented research in both the natural and social sciences for a better understanding of human-environment interrelations in the drylands."

Germany is taking a particular interest in the issue as the host nation of the UNCCD. Cooperation minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul from the ministry of economic cooperation and development (BMZ) said in a statement in response to questions emailed by IPS that combating desertification is an important contribution to the fight against poverty. It is a focal point of our work -- particularly in Africa."

"Germany is the largest bilateral donor in the battle against the spread of desertification. This by itself shows how seriously we take the problem," the minister said.

According to a background note by the ministry's press office, Germany's financial and technical cooperation supports more than 250 projects accounting for commitments of about 1.5 billion euros (1.87 billion dollars). Africa is the focus region of the UNCCD, and some 60 percent of projects are being carried out in 25 African countries, with 25 percent in Asia and 15 percent in Latin America.

In her statement Wieczorek-Zeul compliments the UNCCD for having "contributed significantly to advances made in combating desertification." She added: "We will continue to support it ardently."

The background note says: "Germany contributes 560,000 euros (about 700,363 dollars) or 8.4 percent towards the costs of the UNCCD secretariat. In addition, it gives voluntary contributions amounting to 1 million euros (1.25 million dollars) for the secretariat's general tasks and organisation of events -- from the so-called Bonn Fund -- to which it has committed itself while hosting the secretariat."

The secretariat of the convention to combat desertification is, however far from satisfied, as indicated by UNCCD executive secretary Hama Arba Diallo's comment on the report of the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) of the UN system. The JIU report, which was critical of funding for the UNCCD, was presented to the seventh conference of parties to the convention last October in Nairobi.

"UNCCD is the chosen international treaty to combine such essential objectives as the maintenance of the drylands ecosystems that are home to a large proportion of the world poor, the protection of soil fertility and the promotion of sustainable water and land management practices," said Diallo.

As such, the success of its implementation is a significant condition for the success of the other conventions processes. Yet, in terms of the core budgets, the JIU had forcefully pointed out that UNCCD lags well behind other such organisations, Diallo remarked.

He said UNCCD approved budgets from assessed contributions for 2002-2003 and 2004-2005 were about less than 30 percent of those of the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, based in Bonn), and also less than those of CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity, hosted by Montreal).

"We also receive a lower core budget contribution from the host country than UNFCCC," Diallo said. "UNCCD also has less access to voluntary funding than UNFCCC, especially in the critical area of funding provided for national reporting processes, as documented by the inspectors."

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