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Sunday, 17 June 2012

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The threat of desertification

Do you remember the long drought of 1996? That was one of the longest drought periods experienced in recent memory. Due to the cyclic nature of droughts, we may be in for another long drought in due course. In fact, many weather experts warn that there could be a severe drought this year.

Drought brings serious consequences for primarily agricultural countries such as Sri Lanka. The main crop, paddy, is heavily dependent on rainwater and even other irrigation methods (canals, drip irrigation) cannot be deployed because the reservoirs go dry.

Hydropower generation will also be severely affected. Compounding the problem is the fact that Sri Lanka’s traditional ‘Dry Zone’ which has low rainfall in any case, is the main agricultural region.

Drought often creates a lack of clean water for drinking, public sanitation and personal hygiene, which can lead to a wide range of diseases.

There is also a tendency where people in drought-hit areas move into cities and other parts of their country, thus stretching the resources available to governments. Economic experts have already stated that a drought could jeopardise the country’s economic growth projections for 2012. This applies to any country that faces a drought situation.

Met Department statistics reveal that the rainfall in all parts of the country, except Colombo had been below average since January this year. Under these circumstances, the dry zone could experience a severe drought.

Drought

But there is another aspect that we rarely think of. A drought affects the soil in the long term and depletes its nourishing elements. When the soil deteriorates, that too affects agriculture and hence, livelihoods. In the worst form, it could lead to desertification – “the process of fertile land transforming into desert typically as a result of deforestation, drought or improper/inappropriate agriculture” (Princeton University Dictionary). Today, June 17, is the day when the world looks at this problem earnestly, because desertification is continuing at a greater pace than ever before.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) will mark the World Day to Combat Desertification under the theme - “Healthy soil sustains your life: let’s go land-degradation neutral.

The global observance of the World Day to Combat Desertification this year is planned in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Sunday before the start of the Rio+20 Conference.

“Fertile soil is a finite and irreplaceable resource, which feeds seven billion people today and is expected to feed nine billion in 2050. It is a common wealth that provides us not only with food, but also secures water and energy for present and future generations”, says the UNCCD which focuses mainly on the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, known as the drylands. The Convention’s 194 parties are working to improve the living conditions in the drylands, to maintain and restore land and soil productivity, and to mitigate the effects of drought.

The UNCCD adds: “Soil’s capacity is often forgotten in global policies for sustainable development. Therefore, the international community should set a zero-net land degradation target. This target can be achieved by sustaining healthy soil and restoring degraded land. We should start with drylands, which support half of the world’s food production systems and are highly vulnerable to desertification, and then adopt successful practices elsewhere.”

Proposal

This proposal was under the spotlight at last year’s UN General Assembly High-level Meeting on “addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”. Many world leaders said that the commitment to build a land-degradation neutral world should become an important outcome of the Rio+20 which will take place soon. During this meeting, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for sustainable land-use to become “a cornerstone of the green economy for poverty eradication and sustainable development”.

Desertification can happen anywhere. Some of the most arid deserts in the world were once fertile lands. The total area affected by desertification is between six and 12 million square kilometres. Once it happens, it is unstoppable: The Sahara is currently expanding south at a rate of up to 48 kilometres per year.

Sri Lanka too must guard against this threat, even though it may appear to be remote at first glance. The Ministries of Lands, Agriculture and Wildlife and their related agencies must take the lead in this regard. The prudent management of agricultural and other lands can ward off this threat.

Even the driest of lands can be surprisingly fertile with the right care. Those who have seen the Mirijjawila botanical gardens off Hambantota, still a work in progress, say they are astonished by the sheer variety of flora located there.

The emerging drought situation calls for positive action on several other fronts. Most of our farmlands and crop varieties are very heavily dependent on rain and even the slightest delay in its arrival could have a huge effect on the yield.

Thus, there is a need to engineer crop varieties (including paddy) which are more resistant to dry weather or to put it in another way, need less water to grow.

Consideration should also be given to alternatives to rain-fed cultivation. Research should be conducted on alternative irrigation methods that can be applied even in dry weather conditions. There is little emphasis on rainwater collection and storage during the rainy seasons for use in other periods. Such systems should be made mandatory for cultivations in dry zone areas.

We must also protect the country’s forest cover, which has a direct bearing on the soil. It is down to around 20 percent of the country’s total land area. Deforestation leads to soil erosion (even landslides in some cases) and in the long term, to dry areas.

The felling of trees affects rain patterns, which also leads to drought. Little thought is given to the plight of animals such as elephants caught in the drought along with people.

This is another matter that should be given more consideration. After all, it is not only the flora that suffers in a drought. Clear-cult policies should be brought into deal with the problem of drought and the threat of desertification.

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