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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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.