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Desertification and Drought

Desertification and Drought

Act before it’s too late!

Famine, a catastrophic calamity that is often an outcome of drought, devours large numbers of humans and livestock whenever it strikes somewhere on the earth. The land plays a major role in production of food and other sources of the fulfilment of humans’ biological needs. However, droughts adversely impact land and cause its barrenness and desertification that puts the very existence of the humans and other forms of life in jeopardy, compelling them to migrate. Although drought and desertification are direct results of climatic changes, the actions of humans also are equally responsible for causing physical changes to the earth. Owing to unchecked, excessive cultivation of land, unbridled use of water and pesticides, deforestation, livestock grazing pressure, flawed irrigation systems, meddling with natural biological diversity, rapid expansion of cities, and disturbance in the earth’s ecological balance, the menaces of desertification and drought are affecting our land. As per an estimate, nearly 12 million hectares of land worldwide are lost to land degradation every year, which comes out to be 23 hectares per second. However, if these lands are made fit for agriculture, they can yield as many as 20 million tons of food crops. The precariousness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that from 1950 to 1980, only 10-14 percent of the total land mass was classified as dry whereas it rose to 25-30 percent during 2000-2010. Moreover, according to the United Nations Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification, which runs from January 2010 to December 2020, in the mid-1990s, only 110 countries were at risk of severe land degradation but that number had risen to 168 countries by 2013, and is now costing US$490 billion per year. In addition, every year 75 billion tons of crop soil is lost to land degradation. Experts suggest that it takes centuries for such soil to amass but it gets wasted within a few seasons. Amidst this situation, the menace of drought has also propped up. As per the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the ratio of land affected by drought has doubled during the past 40 years and more people than any other natural calamity have been affected. And, the duration, frequency and intensity of droughts have also increased in most parts of the world due to climate-change-induced temperature rises. These facts and figures sets alarm bells ringing about the looming dangers of drought and desertification.

To make the people around the world aware of these impending perils, every year 17th of June is observed as the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought which is an important event because an increasing number of people around the world, especially those living in developing countries, is faced with these mounting problems. Women, particularly, are more vulnerable to the severe impacts of both the menaces as in many Third World countries, they have to fetch water for drinking, collect wood for fuel consumption and graze the livestock. With depleting natural sources in the wake of drought and desertification, doing these chores becomes tormenting for them. Although they, in this way, are more vulnerable than men, yet when the threat of drought and desertification starts looming large, men and women alike have to migrate, along with their domesticated animals. According to some credible estimates, in the coming 10-15 years, nearly 50 million people will migrate mainly due to the changes in earth’s structure caused by desertification.

Unfortunately, we make use of earth and its resources as if they were unlimited and infinite. We often overlook the role the earth is playing in our daily lives. This neglect jeopardizes the provision of food and water, and threatens biological diversity and even the very existence of humans. Moreover, changing patterns of earth-use also increase emission of greenhouse gases. Earth cannot be made better unless the emission of these hazardous gases is curbed. For instance, drylands, which account for 41.2 percent of world’s total area and are an abode to nearly 2.1 billion people, absorb 46 percent of world’s total carbon emissions. Almost 44 percent of world’s total cultivable land comprises drylands and 30 percent of agricultural plants come from those. With their pastures, they are also the source of food for nearly half the world’s animal population. However, they are faced with the threat of land degradation and desertification. So, the sustainable use of drylands is indispensable for reaping ecological, environmental and economic benefits.

Experts opine that people living in drylands are more dependent on environmental services than their counterparts living in other setups. Agricultural yields, production of livestock and milk, production of wood for fuel and other purposes, all depend on new plants. But their number is limited in drylands owing, mainly, to scant availability of water. And, due to it, there exists a substantial difference between demand and supply of water in those areas. A person needs at least 2000 cubic metres of water annually to meet his basic needs; however, the availability of water in drylands is as little as 1300 cubic metres annually. Hence, the living standards of the populations of drylands are much lower than their counterparts in other ecological zones. For example, there is usually less average income and high ratio of mortality among children below one year of age (Thar in Pakistan is an important example in this context).

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