Desertification is a worldwide phenomenon afflicting countries all over the world. The desert is making a comeback in the Middle East, with fertile lands turning into barren wastes. According to United Nation’s Development Program’s 2009 Arab Human Development Report, desertification is threatening around one-fifth of the MENA region. China is experiencing desertification at an alarming rate – as much as 1,300 square miles each year. Sub-Saharan Africa is drying up, as are regions of Turkey that were once rich agricultural lands.
During the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the world’s leaders adopted the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and agreed on the desertification definition as “Land degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities”. This definition is now widely regarded to be most authoritative definition of desertification.
Dry areas are home to 2.5 billion people, cover more than 40% of the world’s land surface and have to sustain on less than 8% of the world’s renewable water resources. These areas are further challenged by extreme temperatures, frequent drought, land degradation and desertification. When fragile land in arid regions is overexploited by the demands of an expanding population, it loses its productive capacity. Every year 12 million hectares of land are lost to desertification, and the rate is increasing at an alarming pace.
Most of the territories of the MENA region fall within the boundaries of arid lands. Infact, degradation of drylands, affects some 70 percent of land in the Arab region, according to the Arab Centre for the Study of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD). Around 48.6 per cent of the land area in the Mashreq, 28.6 per cent in the Nile Valley and the Horn of Africa, 16.5 per cent in North Africa and 9 per cent in the Arabian Peninsula is endangered on account of desertification. Among MENA countries, the countries facing the greatest dangers are Libya, Egypt and Jordan. In the Arabian Peninsula, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE are the most affected countries.
Environmental stress associated with desertification is a dynamic process with various levels of intensity. The major input factors that act as key drivers for regional environmental change include recurrent drought, land degradation, natural resources depletion, variable population growth, increased temperature, decline in precipitation, scarcity of water for potable consumption and irrigation, progressive soil erosions and salinization etc.
The important repercussions of desertification for the MENA region are poverty, food insecurity, forced displacement, migration and disruption of social and political institutions. Continuing land degradation has severe environmental, economic and social implications that could negatively affect the socio-economic and political stability of the region.
Most of the MENA countries have ratified UNCCD convention, and are revising earlier plans or preparing new national strategies, action plans, and integrated financing strategies to combat desertification. The action plans involve long-term integrated strategies for improved productivity of land coupled with rehabilitation, conservation and sustainable management of land and water resources, at national as well as community level.
Moreover, the Arab countries have established science institutions, such as Arab Centre for the Study of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ASCAD) and International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which are capable of addressing conservation and development of natural resources in arid lands. The Council of Arab Ministers of Environment has prioritized the issues of drylands with the establishment of a workforce of experts to set frameworks of regional programs of collaborative actions.
The Way Forward
The actual efforts and resources devoted to combating desertification are less than that required to the tackle the growing problem. Mobilization of national and regional inputs is an urgent need of the hour. Active participation of all stakeholders, implementation of modern techniques and more research initiatives are required to mitigate land degradation.
Organized and concerted efforts are required at global, regional and national levels to help populations most affected by desertification. Raising awareness among both local communities and decision-makers is crucial in the fight against desertification. While UNCCD is an agreement between developed and developing countries to ensure global action to combat desertification, it also includes specific national commitments for concrete action.
Most actions dealing with desertification, particularly in the MENA region, are monitoring exercises concerned with evaluating the damage and/ loss attributable to desertification. Despite the fact that most MENA countries have appropriate technologies to combat desertification, there is stark neglect in use of such technologies due to lack of awareness and mismanagement of natural resources, water in particular.
There have been great efforts by regional governments and international organizations to tackle the menace of desertification; however the situation is worsening with each passing year. Combating desertification is an integral part of sustainable development in the MENA region, which can be achieved by ensuring participation of civil society, implementation of modern water management techniques and use of traditional knowledge.
Additionally, decision makers, governments, researchers, and stakeholder should focus on synergies between the three Rio conventions (Climate Change, Biodiversity and UNCCD), and integration on sector levels e.g., water, energy and food security, and explore relationship between development sectors and natural resources. Government agencies, alongwith non-governmental bodies, can play a pivotal role in developing national and regional programs and implementing field projects.