Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is Desertification?

Desertification is not the natural expansion of existing deserts but the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. It is a gradual process of soil productivity loss and the thinning out of the vegetative cover because of human activities and climatic variations such as prolonged droughts and floods. What is alarming is that though the land's topsoil, if mistreated, can be blown and washed away in a few seasons, it takes centuries to build up. Among human causal factors are overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation, and poor irrigation practices. Such overexploitation is generally caused by economic and social pressure, ignorance, war, and drought.

How can it be prevented and rehabilitated?

Among practical measures undertaken to prevent and restore degraded land are prevention of soil erosion; improved early warning system and water resource management; sustainable pasture, forest and livestock management; aero-seeding over shifting sand dunes; narrow strip planting, windbreaks and shelterbelts of live plants; agroforestry ecosystems; afforestation and reforestation; introduction of new species and varieties with a capacity to tolerate salinity and/or aridity; and environmentally sound human settlements.

Because poverty forces the people who depend on land for their livelihoods to overexploit the land for food, energy, housing and source of income, and desertification is thus both the cause and consequence of poverty, any effective strategy must address poverty at its very center. It must take into account the social structures and land ownership as well as pay proper attention to education, training and communications in order to provide the fully integrated approach which alone can effectively combat desertification.

Is desertification a global problem?

Desertification is a worldwide problem directly affecting 250 million people and a third of the earth's land surface or over 4 billion hectares. In addition, the livelihoods of some one billion people who depend on land for most of their needs and usually the world's poorest in over one hundred countries are threatened.

Though desertification affects Africa the most, where two-thirds of the continent is desert or drylands, it is not a problem confined to drylands in Africa. Over 30 percent of the land in the United States is affected by desertification. One quarter of Latin America and the Caribbean is deserts and drylands. In Spain, one fifth of the land is at risk of turning into deserts. The growing severity of the threat in the Northern Hemisphere is also illustrated by severe droughts in the United States and water scarcity in southern Europe. In China, since the 1950s, sand drifts and expanding deserts have taken a toll of nearly 700,000 hectares of cultivated land, 2.35 million hectares of rangeland, 6.4 million hectares of forests, woodlands and shrub lands. Worldwide, some 70 percent of the 5.2 billion hectares drylands used for agriculture are already degraded and threatened by desertification.

Why is it important to fight desertification?

Desertification is at the root of political and socio-economic problems and poses a threat to the environmental equilibrium in affected regions. The land's loss of productivity exacerbates poverty in the drylands, forcing its farmers to seek a way of living in more fertile lands or cities. In fact, 135 million people- the equivalent to the population of Germany and France combined - are at risk of being displaced as a consequence of desertification. Some 60 million people are expected to eventually move from the desertified areas in Sub-Saharan Africa towards northern Africa and Europe in the next 20 years. Every year, between 700,000 and 900,000 Mexicans leave their rural dryland homes to find a living as migrant workers in the United States. Half of the 50 armed conflicts in 1994 had environmental causal factors characteristic of the drylands.

Desertification also has grave natural consequences. It makes land areas flood-prone, causes soil salinisation, results in the deterioration of the quality of water, silting of rivers, streams and reservoirs. Unsustainable irrigation practices can dry the rivers that feed large lakes; the Aral Sea and Lake Chad have both seen their shorelines shrink dramatically in this way. Land degradation is also a leading source of land-based pollution for the oceans, as polluted sediment and water washes down major rivers.

What is the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)?

On a global plane, the issue of desertification was first discussed at the UN Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi, Kenya in 1977. But due to a lack of support, both administrative and financial, attempts to efficiently tackle the problem of desertification were crippled. Therefore in 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) or so called Rio Earth Summit remmended the elaboration of a United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The Convention, the only convention stemming from a direct recommendation of the Conference's Agenda 21, was adopted in Paris on 17 June 1994 and entered into force in December 1996. It is the first and only internationally legally binding framework set up to address the problem of desertification. The Convention is based on the principles of participation, partnership and decentralization - the backbone of Good Governance. It now has more than 180 country Parties to the Convention, making it truly global in reach.

What are National Action Programmes and National Reports?

National Action Programmes are at the heart of the Convention and constitute the conceptual and legal framework for implementing it at the national and local levels. Their purpose is to identify the factors contributing to desertification and the practical measures necessary to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought. The Convention indicates that affected countries shall elaborate and implement them with the full participation of local communities and all interested stakeholders and fully integrate them with other development programmes.

Further, country Parties and observers regularly report to the Conference of the Parties on progresses made in the implementation of the Convention. Based on these National Reports, developments are evaluated and analyzed during the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC), a subsidiary body of the Conference of the Parties held annually, in order to identify and share best practices, shortcomings and constraints, with a view to improving the implementation of the Convention.

What is the Conference of the Parties (COP)?

The Conference of the Parties is the supreme decision-making body. It reviews the implementation of the Convention; promotes and facilitates the exchange of information; approves the budget and activity programmes of its subsidiary bodies; cooperates with international organizations, NGOs & other related conventions; and meets on a biannual basis. You can learn about the outcomes of the latest COP here.

What is the Committee on Science and Technology (CST)?

Established under article 24 of the Convention as a subsidiary body of the COP, the Committee on Science and Technology (CST) provides the COP with information and advice on scientific and technological matters related to combating desertification and mitigating the effects of drought. Consisting of government representatives, the committee identifies priorities for research, and recommends ways of strengthening cooperation among researchers. The Convention encourages the protection of traditional knowledge that is conducive to sustainable development while also facilitating the exchange of latest data, information and technology through the CST.

What is the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC)?

The CRIC was established as subsidiary body to the COP to assist it in regularly reviewing the implementation of the Convention as an integral part of the Performance Review and Assessment of Implementation System. The inter-sessional sessions of the CRIC focus on reviewing information submitted by Parties and progress made in achieving national voluntary Land Degradation Neutrality targets.

What is the relationship with other environmental conventions?

Desertification is closely linked with global climate change and loss of biodiversity. Synergies are strongly encouraged between the three so-called Rio conventions - the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) - to widen the impact of measures undertaken. It underlines the need to coordinate activities related to environmental protection and natural resource management and the complementary nature of the three conventions at all levels. A Joint Liaison Group (JLG) was thus established in 2001 between the secretariats of the three conventions. The JLG collects and shares information on the work programmes and operations of each convention.

What progress has been made since the Convention entered into force?

To date, more than 110 countries had agreed to specify concrete targets with clear indicators to rehabilitate more land and reverse degradation, which currently affects over a third of the world’s land resources. More than 50 countries have already set the targets and are advancing towards the development of LDN transformative projects and programmes tapping into innovative finance. The recently launched Land Degradation Neutrality Fund is the first-of-its-kind investment vehicle dedicated to implementing the SDGs by leveraging public sector funds to raise private sector capital for sustainable land management and landscape restoration activities worldwide that bring multiple environment, economic and social benefits.

The recently adopted UNCCD 2018-2030 Strategic Framework is the most comprehensive global commitment to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) to restore the productivity of vast swathes of degraded land, improve the livelihoods of more than 1.3 billion people and reduce the impacts of drought on vulnerable populations.

The Convention’s 196 parties work together to improve the living conditions for people in drylands, to maintain and restore land and soil productivity, and to mitigate the effects of drought. The UNCCD is particularly committed to a bottom-up approach, encouraging the participation of local people in combating desertification and land degradation. The UNCCD secretariat facilitates cooperation between developed and developing countries, particularly around knowledge and technology transfer for sustainable land management.