A farmer’s emotional attachment to the land is visceral. For those who work the land or rely on it for their family’s survival in the drylands, desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) is the stuff of nightmares. The land and soil should be renewable assets. But land users, in many critical areas, are approaching a tipping point where climate change, over-use and population pressure mean the vital services provided by the land and soil – like food, water, clothing and energy are becoming finite.

We are seeing a vicious cycle of declining food production and increasing competition for once abundant resources. We’ve all seen the impact of this competition in rising food prices and the cost of our supermarket shopping baskets.  But if you are in the bottom billion of the world’s poor, of course, this is more than an academic exercise in economics.  If you are a poor farmer, in the Horn of Africa, you watch as your crops wither from lack of rain and as once productive land turns to dust.

We need to stop working against the land and the natural environment and do something positive to get sustainable land management techniques into global policy and local practice. The side-effects of failing to act decisively are increasingly horrifying. Mass hunger, social tension, unemployment, migration, political instability and armed conflict will rise in countries where land is under pressure. We all need a strategy around prevention that secures the health and productivity of land for the well-being of present and future generations.

As preparations for the meeting in New York on 20 September to discuss desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development gather pace, leaders need to reflect more strongly on the fact that good land management is critical to all our food security, to global efforts to combat poverty and build environmentally sustainable growth. It is hard to believe that so much depends on so little – but there are only 18-25 cm of topsoil that stand between us and extinction!

It is time that our leaders commit to protecting us and the land against further degradation.  In fact, they could push for a target of zero net land degradation. They can contribute by prioritizing investments in sustainable land management and by ensuring the incentives are in place for business and land users to adopt tried and tested techniques that can positively transform drylands.  And they can cultivate knowledge and innovation to nurture resilient communities and ecosystems.

Can the nightmare become a dream?


Established in 1994, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development issues to the land agenda. It focuses on drylands, which cover 41% of the Earth and are in habited by over 2 billion people. Drylands account for 44% of the world’s cultivated ecosystems and have provided 30% of all the world’s cultivated plants. However, eight of the world’s 25 biodiversity ‘hotspots’ are in the drylands and up to one fifth of the drylands have been steadily degraded since the 1980s. The Convention’s 194 Parties are dedicated to improving the living conditions of the world’s poorest 1.2 billion resident in the drylands, to maintaining and restoring the land’s productivity, and to mitigating the effects of drought.


Nowadays, every space shuttle launch becomes a global spectacle. If you watch closely, however, the anxiety of those who work behind the scenes to make it all happen is palpable from their faces. Doctors and nurses too have their fair share of anxiety. For every patient that comes through their doors, their greatest hope and wish is to see the patient effectively treated and return to full health. An even greater wish is that the patient would  never have to return on account of that illness.

The same is true of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Established largely to avert a repeat of the 1970s and 1980s drought- and famine- related tragedies witnessed in Africa by bringing about policies to rehabilitate and protect the land from being carelessly degraded, the Convention has worked from year to year to keep this prospect at bay. But with evidence mounting that more intense and prolonged droughts ahead coupled with scientific advice from the climate watchers, the Convention has grown increasingly uneasy about the ability of the most vulnerable communities to cope with drought as they have done in the past. Also concern has been growing about food insecurity spreading beyond the drylands and beyond the drought periods now and in future, absent policy measures to contain it.

Consequently, the international community, in December 2010, called for a high level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to be held this year.  And not unlike the doctor or nurse who loses a patient because their advice was not heeded, the tragedy that has unfolded in the Horn of Africa is beyond perturbing. But where do we go from here?

We have two policy options as an international community. The one is to give up on the situation, continue with the existing policies and for the future, tie our fate to famine relief. The other is to acknowledge that we can do better. Pick up the pieces, learn from our mistakes, and institute measures to safeguard our precious heritage, the soil, and also provide the populations most vulnerable to desertification, land degradation and drought with the assets that will render them resilient the next time around. On Tuesday, 20 September 2011, every head of state and government has the opportunity to take that stand during the UN General Assembly’s high level meeting on “addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.” Who will do so? Who will pass?