Last December, diplomats and conservationists took aim at an environmental problem that has quietly come to afflict more than 110 countries: desertification. Meeting in Bonn, Germany from December 11–22, 2000, delegates from 170 countries discussed ways to turn the good intentions of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) into concrete action to arrest the problem.

The Bonn meeting allowed delegates to review national action programs that have been developed to address desertification, which primarily stems from the deterioration of drylands.* By the eve of the conference, 30 countries had submitted programs to the CCD, including 17 from Africa and seven from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Individual programs vary considerably based on regional conditions. With a history of drought, Ethiopia has developed a comprehensive plan that identifies needs in education, research and development, resettlement, capacity-building, market development, and other areas. As this program is implemented, interactions between the country’s rapid population growth and desertification will bear watching. The country’s current population of 64 million is projected to reach 188 million by 2050, according to the 2000 World Population Data Sheet.

In China, where the government estimates that 60 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people live in areas affected by desertification, the Chinese Committee for the Implementation of the CCD is emphasizing land reclamation. As part of this effort, women farmers in rural areas west of Beijing are already planting willow and poplar trees to stop erosion and reclaim the land from encroaching desert. At the same time, efforts to develop China’s arid and impoverished western regions could complicate efforts to stem desertification in the years ahead.

Desertification Has Many Causes: Geographic, Socioeconomic, Agricultural, Demographic

The problem of desertification is both vast and complex, and stopping the acceleration of land degradation will be difficult. According to the CCD Secretariat, about 36 million square kilometers (14 million square miles) of drylands used for agriculture worldwide suffer from reduced biological productivity. That amounts to an area roughly twice the size of Russia. In Africa, where the problem is most severe, deserts or arid zones already represent two-thirds of the continent’s total land area. The CCD Secretariat adds that 71 percent of Asia’s arid lands are severely degraded. And Europe is no stranger to the problem: desert-like conditions have appeared in southern Italy, Spain, and Greece in recent years.

While natural climate variability contributes to desertification, human activities bear some of the responsibility, too. Poor farming practices, overgrazing of livestock, deforestation, and intensive irrigation practices are all important culprits behind the problem. This overexploitation of very limited land and water resources is often driven by a welter of socioeconomic problems, particularly poverty and inadequate education. Political conflict over scarce resources can further exacerbate the problem as disenfranchised populations are forced onto marginal lands.

Population growth, either from natural increase or immigration, can contribute to land degradation and desertification as well. As dryland populations expand, so does the demand for food, wood, and other natural products derived from the land, intensifying pressure on agricultural lands and forests. Accordingly, many of the national action programs that have been developed include guidelines for reducing population growth in and migration to sensitive areas (see figure). The CCD’s special section on implementation in Africa specifically calls for “population and migration policies to reduce population pressure on land.”

Dryland Population as a Percentage of Total Population

Source: Drylands Population Assessment II, UNDP Office to Combat Drought and Desertification, November 1999.

Most Affected Countries Do Not Have an Action Plan to Combat Desertification

While the submission of numerous action programs is encouraging, much work remains to be done. Most countries affected by desertification have yet to submit programs, prompting the delegates in Bonn to call upon those who had not done so to submit their plans by 2005. More important, officials in the Office to Combat Desertification and Drought of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have stressed that the submission of action programs represents only one stage in an ongoing process, and that implementation remains a key question.

An important ingredient in this respect is funding. UNDP’s Trust Fund to Combat Desertification has mobilized roughly $15 million since 1995 to help implement the CCD, and other international programs to eradicate poverty in dryland areas and restore degraded lands have invested significant financial resources in affected countries as well. In addition, some of these countries and international nonprofit organizations have financed their own projects to combat desertification.

But given the scope of the problem, a much larger effort is needed. In Bonn, CCD executive secretary Hama Arba Diallo lamented that “not one plan of action had benefited from a concrete initiative from donors.” German delegate Joachim Tappe admitted that Europe’s commitment to address desertification so far had been “highly insufficient.” The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that an effective 20-year global effort would cost US$10 billion to US$22 billion per year. While that is a substantial sum, UNEP calculates that desertification presently costs affected countries approximately US$42 billion each year.

The question of international financial assistance to aid less developed countries fighting desertification is likely to be high on the agenda at the next CCD meeting, scheduled for September 2001. Less developed countries are hopeful that the Global Mechanism, established at the first conference of the parties in 1997 to coordinate allocation of resources under the convention, will become more active as a fundraising body. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has also urged the international community and the Global Environment Facility to support the CCD with the same level of financial commitment planned for conventions on climate change, biodiversity, and persistent organic pollutants.

Summing up in Bonn, Annan called attention to the people whose lives have been directly affected by desertification — a group that exceeds 250 million people, according to the World Meteorological Organization. “The people threatened by desertification are among the most vulnerable on this earth,” he said. “Preserving arid land as a source of food, and ensuring that those who live on it have access to safe drinking water, are formidable challenges. But the international community has both the technical and the financial means to rise to these challenges, if it has the will.”

* The term “drylands” refers to arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. These are areas, other than polar and sub-polar regions, in which the ratio of annual precipitation to potential evapotranspiration (total water loss from the soil due to direct evaporation from the soil and transpiration from the surfaces of plants) falls between 0.05 and 0.65.

April Reese is a freelance environmental journalist based in Washington, DC.

For More Information

For links to national action programs, as well as press releases and fact sheets on desertification and the CCD, visit the CCD website: