Desertification Causes Starvation and Deaths in Africa

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GOBI DESERT, China- It has been predicted that the effects of desertification, land degradation and drought may expose almost two-thirds of the world’s population to increased water stress by 2025. This will have a critical impact on agricultural production and contribute to soaring food prices and shortages worldwide. This is one of the reasons that some people living in dry lands are the poorest in the world.

Desertification is considered as one of the world’s most alarming global environmental problems. It is also the primary cause of environmentally induced displacement in many regions of the world. The term “desertification” has been in use since 1949, when French ecologist and botanists Andre Aubreville published a book entitled “Climate, Forets et Desertification de l’Afrique Tropicale.” He defined desertification as “the changing of productive land into a desert as the result of ruination of land by man-induced soil erosion.”

According to many estimates, desertification affects at least 135 million to 250 million people worldwide. However, some scientists argue that only in China does the problem of desertification concerns more than 400 million people. Primary areas of the world that are affected by desertification are the Sahel region as well as Southern Africa (the Kalahari Desert,) China (the Gobi Desert) and Latin America.

Many estimations also show that 70 percent of African land is already degraded to some degree and land degradation affects at least 485 million people or sixty-seventy percent of the entire African population. (United Nations.)

In 2012, for instance, landholders in food exporting countries and poor countries were hit hard by drought. But it is people in the dry lands, especially small holder farmers and the landless poor in rural areas in the developing world who are likely to go hungry and even lose their lives. The prolonged droughts in the Horn of Africa in 2011 and in the Sahel in 2012 resulted in humanitarian crisis, leaving millions hungry and malnourished, especially children.

But drought does not have to claim lives. Unlike earthquakes and other natural disasters, drought is predicable, and the effects can be mitigated. Desertification is also predictable, avoidable and often reversible through the restoration of degraded lands where feasible.  Unfortunately, however, drought and desertification creep upon mankind slowly and silently, and the people often underestimate their economic, social and humanitarian impacts when it is too late.

The effects of drought are being exacerbated by desertification, and the threat of the Sahara desert spreading southwards is considered a major challenge that no single country can tackle it alone. Land resources underpin the livelihoods of billions of people worldwide, and are central to sustainable national development. This is especially true in dry land areas which are experiencing severe pressure from increasing socio-economic impacts of land use and broader global changes.

Within the last decade, 25 countries in Africa have faced drastic food shortages as a result of the extended drought. The reduced capacity for food production has brought a population of over 200 million people to the verge of calamity. Some have died of starvation, and among the survivors, especially the children and young people, many will suffer impaired health for the rest of their lives.

Dry lands in Africa, including the hyper-arid deserts, comprise 1,959 million hectares, or 65 percent, of the continent and about one-third of the world’s dry lands. One-third of this area is hyper-arid deserts (672 million hectares.) These are uninhabited, except in oases. The remaining two-thirds, or 1,287 million hectares, comprise the arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL.) Nearly 400 million people (two-thirds of all Africans) live in the latter.

Also, the problem of rapidly increasing population pressures on the fragile and vulnerable soils of Africa’s dry land regions translates into over-exploitation of water, land, forest and pasture resources through over cultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices. The resulting erosion and degradation of productive lands has led to food insecurity.

It is, therefore, imperative for African governments to reframe their policies in terms of drought preparedness and risk management as opposed to disaster response. This implied that lifesaving investments should be made rather than sending humanitarian aid after a crisis has occurred. Capacity and resilience to withstand the effects of drought and desertification can be strengthened through social and economic interventions among vulnerable communities.

Moreover, establishing early warning systems leading to early actions, and checkmating inordinate grazing is a useful tool.  Tree-falling should be highly discouraged, while strategic tree planning programs should always be initiated and sustained. In addition, governments should endeavor to provide alternative means of livelihood to rural dwellers whose commerce is in wood.

Unsustainable agricultural practices through poor irrigation should be seriously discouraged because it pollutes fresh water sources and cause land to be degraded.  Also, degraded lands should be restored, while healthy soil should be protected, since healthy soil is believed to hold more ground water.

Agenda 21, the blueprint for action into the 21st century adopted by the world’s governments at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, mapped out national strategies for combating desertification:

  • through intensified soil conservation, afforestation and reforestation activities;
  • by developing and strengthening integrated development programmes and integrating them into national development plans;
  • through drought-preparedness and drought-relief schemes; and
  • by promoting popular participation.

Dickson Salami Adama

Sources: Tiempo Cyber Climate, The Nigerian Voice, Vanguard News
Photo: Ecomar

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