PRAGUE, June 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Arid land and desert make up 40 percent of the Earth's total land mass. In places like Central Asia and North Africa, the percentage is much higher. And land is becoming arid at an alarming rate.
Nearly a third of the world's farmland has been abandoned in the past 40 years because overuse has made it unproductive.
Every year, an additional 200,000 square kilometers of arable soil or forest becomes a wasteland. That is an area the size of Kyrgyzstan.
While attention has focused on global warming, a threat that still lies mainly in the future, desertification is already posing a very real threat to the livelihoods of many of the world's poorest people. Experts suggest the lives of over 1.2 billion people in 110 countries could be affected.
Desertification is, then, one of the globe's most pressing problems, a problem that the United Nations sought to highlight by naming 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification -- and an issue that international experts are currently discussing at a three-day conference in Tunis.
"There are natural processes of degradation in arid and semi-arid ecosystems," says Rajeb Boulharouf of the UN's Secretariat for the Convention To Combat Desertification. "However, desertification as we are seeing it today and more particularly [as we have seen it] in the past 30 years is essentially a man-induced activity."
"We are losing the biological productivity of the earth," Boulharouf says. For that, he blames unsustainable agricultural practices, unsustainable water management, and unsustainable human settlement.
In the former Soviet Union, intensive farming of the fragile steppe in southern Russia and Kazakhstan during the 1950s and 1960s, gigantic irrigation projects and the massive use of pesticides in the cotton fields of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have all contributed to desertification.
In Africa and South America, overpopulation is driving farmers into semi-arid regions or former forestland that cannot sustain intensive agriculture.
The Imprint On Society
The long-term impact on society could be dramatic. "Today, more and more experts are addressing the issue of not only environmentally induced migration but desertification-induced migration," says Boulharouf. "It is expected that from now to 2020, some 30 million people will be moving from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa on their way to Europe. These are unofficial statistics, but these statistics are being brought up by academicians, by people who have been studying the issue for the past 20 years."
Even NATO is concerned, Boulharouf says, fearing that the struggle for control of scarce water resources could ignite wars.
"Last year, NATO itself -- not the most natural partner when it comes to sustainable development, by any means -- organized an international seminar in Valencia [Spain] about the issue of desertification and security," the UN expert says. "More and more, desertification is becoming a issue central to conflict-generating dynamics in arid ecosystems."
But the economic costs of desertification are already enormous. Boulharouf says the global economy is losing $42 billion each year as a result of this process of degradation.
"The cost of inaction has not been seriously addressed," Boulharouf says, but he adds that there is good news: there is at least international agreement on the causes of desertification and the remedies, which is not the case with global warming.
Some countries -- among them China, where the desert has approached to within 70 kilometers of Beijing -- have begun to replant forests and encourage farmers to rotate their crops.
And, as the experience of the United States demonstrates, desertification can be halted or reversed. In the 1930s, a series of massive dust storms transformed several states in the center of the country into a "Dust Bowl," forcing hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their farms and migrate to other regions. Those storms were caused by overintensive farming of fragile pasture land. It took several years of better land management -- and a great deal of government spending -- to make much of the region fit again for human habitation.
The experts meeting in Tunis this week hope to get the message out that prevention is definitely easier than the cure.