Desertification cannot wait for the climate

The fifteenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, received little publicity. Although the UNCCD has been ratified by 196 states, no less than those who signed the Paris Climate Agreement, the world still sees desertification as a local problem that does not rise to the level of a global challenge. This was well reflected in the results, as the summit failed to adopt a binding plan to deal with the droughts, which are affecting large areas and threatening food security and human health. In the past two years alone, Africa has been hit by 14 severe droughts. However, this has not been enough to incentivize countries to make time-based commitments, similar to the Kyoto Protocol’s formula for reducing carbon emissions and the International Climate Fund‘s commitments in the Paris.

In fact, most countries still refuse to consider desertification as 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, made worse by rising temperatures and changing seasons due to climate change. Because the drought will be more severe in Africa and the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, it will lead to increased waves of westward displacement for millions of people seeking a place that can provide the basic necessities of life. life. While African countries most affected by desertification and drought, supported 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 funding mechanisms, including those for climate change. . Although this argument seems logical to avoid duplication, climate finance also suffers from a significant deficit and climate priorities may be different. A compromise was found by postponing a decision on the matter to the 16th summit, which Saudi Arabia offered to host in Riyadh in 2024. While the Abidjan meeting decided to rehabilitate a billion hectares of desertified land globally by 2030, some are skeptical that this ambitious target can be achieved without sufficient funding, fearing it will meet the fate of similar targets set by previous meetings . One example 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% of its set targets.

To understand the seriousness of the problem, it suffices to recall that two-thirds of Africa and certain regions of Western Asia, including the Arab countries, are natural deserts or arid lands with limited productivity. More importantly, 65% 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 each year due to logging for the production of firewood and charcoal, which remains a major source of fuel in poor areas. This makes the acquisition of reliable and secure sources of energy an urgent priority to combat desertification and climate change, whether generated by the sun and wind or by oil and gas.

The summit coincided with severe sandstorms that hit several Arab countries, from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to Iraq, Syria and Jordan. This is further evidence of the growing 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 season for sandstorms in the region, but this year they have been more violent and more frequent. For example, Baghdad witnessed 10 huge storms per month, while in the past there were between 1 and 3. Sandstorms covered the skies of many Arab cities with a red layer, causing problems healthcare 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 per year, mainly 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 rate more than twice the global average, with an acute shortage of rain, this is sure to lead to increased droughts and sandstorms. Saudi’s initiative to green large swathes of its land and to engage with neighboring countries in expanding green coverage by planting billions of trees, is the region’s largest program to manage drylands and combat against 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. These range 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 deprive the land of its fertile elements. . 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, its effects are more severe for farmers in poor countries, where the economic losses due to the degradation of fertile land are enormous. The developments of the war in Ukraine have proven that local production is the best guarantee to achieve food security, which requires the preservation of every inch of arable land. The first task is to strengthen local capacities, transfer technology, exchange experiences and encourage the use of local plant species. There is also a need to attract more investment in agricultural and rural development, focusing on helping individual farmers and families working in the agricultural sector and supporting their ability to own land. Taking responsibility for preserving the value of owned farmland protects it and increases production. But all this will not be enough if strict land use standards are not set, which maintain a balance between different uses and preserve natural systems. Perhaps the most important outcome of the discussions on combating desertification at recent meetings is the consensus on the need to cooperate with various international agreements, particularly on climate and biodiversity, in order to avoid duplication and overlaps and to attract more funding for integrated projects. Studies have shown that every dollar spent to maintain land productivity and prevent land degradation yields up to $30.

The problems of climate, desertification and biodiversity are interdependent, and addressing one of them benefits the other, which requires integrated approaches based on a holistic approach. Facing urgent challenges, such as halting desertification and eradicating poverty, cannot wait until the climate problem is solved.

Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development – AFED ( and editor-in-chief of the magazine Environnement & Développement (

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