The Risks of Turning Planet Earth into a Giant Desert

The 15th session of the Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), took  place in Abidjan Côte d’Ivoire, from 9 to 20 May 2022. The theme: “Land, Life. Legacy: From scarcity to prosperity.”

Droughts represent 15% of natural disasters but took the largest human toll, approximately 650,000 deaths from 1970-2019, Credit: Guillermo Flores/IPS

By Baher Kamal
MADRID, May 24 2022 – The message is clear: three-quarters of the world’s population will be affected by drought by 2050. Does it sound too far in time? Well, your kids might be among the billions of humans living on a desertified planet.

But it is not about only them. Also you are already affected. In fact, around 1.700 billion of drylands, home to two billion people, are already covering 41% of the planet’s land surface.

Moreover, an additional 1 billion dryland hectares are now under threat.

In the past century, 45 major drought events occurred in Europe, affecting millions of people and resulting in more than 27.8 billion US dollars in economic losses. And today, an annual average of 15% of the land area and 17% of the population within the European Union is affected by drought

To talk about that, some 7,000 participants, including heads of State, ministers and delegates as well as representatives of the private sector, civil society, women, youth leaders and media, met in the 15 Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

The participants in this two-week meeting (9-20 May 2022) on the future of land had before their eyes the following facts and figures, which were submitted by the UNCCD report Drought in Numbers, 2022:

  • Since 2000, the number and duration of droughts has risen 29%,

  • From 1970 to 2019, weather, climate and water hazards accounted for 50% of disasters and 45% of disaster-related deaths, mostly in developing countries,

  • Droughts represent 15% of natural disasters but took the largest human toll, approximately 650,000 deaths from 1970-2019,

  • From 1998 to 2017, droughts caused global economic losses of roughly 124 billion US dollars,

  • In 2022, more than 2.3 billion people face water stress, and almost 160 million children are exposed to severe and prolonged droughts.

 

What will happen if the world does not act… urgently?

Unless action is stepped up, UNCCD projects the following risks:

  • By 2030, an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of being displaced by drought,

  • By 2040, an estimated one in four children will live in areas with extreme water shortages,

  • By 2050, droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population, and an estimated 4.8-5.7 billion people will live in areas that are water-scarce for at least one month each year, up from 3.6 billion today,

  • And up to 216 million people could be forced to migrate by 2050, largely due to drought in combination with other factors including water scarcity, declining crop productivity, sea-level rise, and overpopulation.

 

Where?

No continent and no country can feel safe or escape the impacts of the growing droughts. See what another report Droughtland says:

  • Severe drought affects Africa more than any other continent, with more than 300 events recorded in the past 100 years, accounting for 44% of the global total. More recently, sub-Saharan Africa has experienced the dramatic consequences of climate disasters becoming more frequent and intense,

  • In the past century, 45 major drought events occurred in Europe, affecting millions of people and resulting in more than 27.8 billion US dollars in economic losses. And today, an annual average of 15% of the land area and 17% of the population within the European Union is affected by drought,

  • In the U.S., crop failures and other economic losses due to drought have totaled several hundred billion USD over the last century – 249 billion US dollars alone since 1980,

  • Over the past century, the highest total number of humans affected by drought were in Asia.

 

Losing food, water, oxygen, biodiversity…

But regardless of the economic costs –taxpayers’ money is anyway being wasted on human and the Planet non-priorities such as weapons, wars, polluting fossil fuels, etc– the advancing droughts imply many dangerous impacts.

For instance, the evident risk of losing food production thus more scarcity and higher prices; severe water shortages; less oxygen from dried forests; major advance of extinction of the Planet’s biodiversity as a key survival factor, among many other consequences.

 

What are the causes?

The reasons are evident: unsustainable use, such as overgrazing or deforestation for conversion to agriculture.

The world leading Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that, exacerbated by climate change, this leads to land degradation and desertification, reduces productivity, and threatens food security and livelihoods.

See also what The Global Environment Facility (GEF), which serves as the financial mechanism for several environmental conventions, says in this regard: unchecked desertification can lead to food shortages, volatility and increases in food prices caused by declines in the productivity of croplands.

As well, it heightens the impacts of climate change globally caused by the release of carbon and nitrous oxide from degrading land; and the threat of social instability from the forced migration that will result.

 

The vicious cycle

“Contrary to common misconception, desertification is not necessarily the natural expansion of existing deserts but rather the degradation of land overtime due to overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices.

And although desertification is ultimately man-made, it is exacerbated by the extreme weather, such as droughts and heavy rains, associated with climate change.

“That can start a vicious cycle where land degradation leads to loss of vegetation and forests that reduces the Earth’s capacity to sequester carbon dioxide in the atmosphere…”

 

Impacts on ecosystems

The UNCCD report also highlight the following scientific findings:

  • The percentage of plants affected by drought has more than doubled in the last 40 years, with about 12 million hectares of land lost each year due to drought and desertification,

  • Ecosystems progressively turn into carbon sources, especially during extreme drought events, detectable on five of six continents,

  • One-third of global carbon dioxide emissions is offset by the carbon uptake of terrestrial ecosystems, yet their capacity to sequester carbon is highly sensitive to drought events,

  • 14% of wetlands critical for migratory species are located in drought-prone regions,

  • The megadrought in Australia contributed to ‘megafires’ in 2019-2020 resulting in the most dramatic loss of habitat for threatened species in post-colonial history. And about 3 billion animals were killed or displaced in the Australian wildfires,
  • Photosynthesis in European ecosystems was reduced by 30% during the summer drought of 2003, which resulted in an estimated net carbon release of 0.5 gigatons,

  • 84% of terrestrial ecosystems are threatened by changing and intensifying wildfires,

  • During the first two decades of the 21st century, the Amazon experienced 3 widespread droughts, all of which triggered massive forest fires.

  • Drought events are becoming increasingly common in the Amazon region due to land-use and climate change, which are interlinked,

  • If Amazonian deforestation continues unabated, 16% of the region’s remaining forests will likely burn by 2050.

 

The 15th session of the Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), is taking place in Abidjan Côte d’Ivoire, from 9 to 20 May 2022. The theme: “Land, Life. Legacy: From scarcity to prosperity.” “We are faced with a crucial choice,” Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told participants: “We can either reap the benefits of land restoration now or continue on the disastrous path that has led us to the triple planetary crisis of climate, biodiversity and pollution”

The 15th session of the Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), took  place in Abidjan Côte d’Ivoire, from 9 to 20 May 2022. The theme: “Land, Life. Legacy: From scarcity to prosperity.”

 

What happened in Abidjan?

The COP15 adopted 38 decisions, dealing with land restoration and tenure, migration and gender, among several others, while highlighting the role of land in addressing multiple crises.

Among them, the promotion of robust monitoring and data to track progress against land restoration commitments, the adoption of a new political and financial impetus to help nations deal with the devastating impacts of drought and build resilience.

It was also agreed to accelerate the restoration of one billion hectares of degraded land by 2030; to boost drought resilience by identifying the expansion of drylands, and to establish an Intergovernmental Working Group on Drought for 2022-2024 to look into possible options, including global policy instruments and regional policy frameworks.

The need to address the drought-induced forced migration and displacement driven by desertification and land degradation, was also among the COP15 conclusions.

But also the need to improve women’s involvement in land management as important enablers for effective land restoration, by addressing commonly encountered land tenure challenges by people in vulnerable situations, and collecting gender-disaggregated data on the impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought.

 

The “commitments”

The COP15 participants announced 2.500 billion US dollars in contributions, which is more than the expected 1.500 US dollars.

Still, a tough question remains: experience and pragmatism proved over the last decades that politicians are as quick to promise as they are not to fulfill. Will it be the same case now?

 

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