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Looming desertification could spawn millions of environmental refugees

Africa may be able to feed only 25% of its population by 2025

Looming desertification could spawn millions of environmental refugees
Africa may be able to feed only 25% of its population by 2025
December 14, 2006

Africa may be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025 if soil degradation on the continent continues at its current pace, according to a water expert presenting at an upcoming United Nations University (UNU) conference on desertification in Algiers, Algeria.

Karl Harmsen, Director of UNU’s Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, says that should soil conditions continue to decline in Africa, nearly 75% of the continent could come to rely on some sort of food aid by 2025.

Harmsen’s comments come as some 200 delegates from 25 countries prepare to convene at the December 17-19 meeting in Algiers to discuss the causes and consequences of desertification, a threat that puts an estimated 2 billion people at risk of becoming “environmental refugees”. The U.N. warns that climate change could worsen the situation by depriving populations living in arid regions of adequate water supplies. Christian Aid has estimated that an average global temperature increase exceeding 3ºC could cause 182 million deaths in Africa this century and leave 750 million additional hungry people in Africa and Asia.

African river basins are drying up says NASA

New satellite data from NASA show that the Mississippi and Colorado River basins are storing more water over the past five years, while the Congo, Zambezi and Nile basins are drying. While the findings are good news for U.S. agriculture, the research indicates that Africa continues to face geographic hardship.

“Bad policies are as much to blame for aggravating desertification as climate change, which is also largely human-induced,” says conference organizer Zafar Adeel, Director of the UNU’s Canadian-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health. “Put simply, desertification — which people commonly think of as the expansion of desert sands but is defined as the persistent decline of ecosystems’ benefits in dry areas — has been on the international agenda for 50 years but we still do not know precisely how fast desertification is growing, much less how best to address it. Efforts to arrest the problem have been chronically under-funded, and the situation is getting demonstrably worse every year. This conference convenes experts to share policy experiences, good and bad, and to break the policy logjam with new ideas for moving forward.”

UNU says that “agricultural intensification in dry areas and the settlement of nomadic populations” are policies that have worsened desertification by disturbing “fragile soil and plant resources and exacerbating salinization. New land tenure systems and economic development in marginal dryland areas have created demographic changes and increased population pressures,” adds UNU. “Meanwhile, poverty reduction policies seldom address desertification, despite its impact on food security, and emergency drought relief treats only symptoms of desertification, not its causes.”

Dr Adeel estimates that already 10-20 percent of drylands, which in total make up about 41 percent of Earth’s land cover, are degraded, affecting 200 million people. He says that population pressures in these regions will further stress renewable water supplies and that climate change could cause droughts and increased water scarcity.

“As livelihoods deteriorate and climate extremes manifest themselves with increasing frequency and severity, more and more people will choose to migrate,” noted Dr. Adeel. “This mass movement will itself have serious environmental impacts.”

Environmental migrants

Janos Bogardi, Director of the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, says that large numbers of people could be affected.

Photos by R. Butler

“There is an overwhelming expectation that the number of people on the move due to environmental reasons will grow,” Bogardi said. “We are at the beginning of an unavoidably long process. Yet, the aim must be clear: to create recognition in order to assist a forcefully emerging new category of migrants.”

Bogardi explains that there are currently no mechanisms for recognizing environmental refugees, who already outnumber people categorized as political refugees. He proposes three categories of environmental refugees: environmentally-motivated migrants, environmentally-forced migrants, and environmental refugees (potentially including disaster refugees); depending on whether the environmentally-motivated migrant has a choice to leave and the swiftness of taking action (“fleeing” rather than “migrating”).


While the outlook is bleak for some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable regions, speakers at the conference will offer some paths to addressing desertification and its effects.

Dr. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University will argue that people in at risk places will need to “switch to clean cooking fuels instead of burning crop residue and animal dung so that soil stops losing valuable sources of nutrients badly needed now to forestall desertification and world hunger.”

Lal says such efforts will improve land productivity for crops, sequester 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, reduce erosion (and associated greenhouse gas emissions), improve water resources, enhance soil biodiversity, and diminish health risks from haze that impacts Africa and India.

Lal says that for the cost of a single modern jet fighter — about $2 billion — soil improvements could produce an extra 20-30 million metric tons of food per year, enough to feed the number of people being added annually in developing countries.

Hans van Ginkel, UN Under Secretary-General and Rector of UNU, says that combating desertification will have an enormous impact on poverty reduction and global environmental security. As such, he urges governments and international development agencies to make desertification a top priority in policy-making.

“A wealth of experience in combating desertification has been amassed around the world, but is routinely ignored by policy-makers,” he said. “We hope this conference will mark a true change in the way forward and thank the Algerian government for its continuing leadership in addressing this challenge.”

This article is based on a news release from United Nations University.

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