Drought, desertification and avoiding the next big global food shortage

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Drought, desertification and avoiding the next big global food shortage

©IFAD/Qilai Shen

Nan Yanshuang, 18, walking in a large dry field in Linfang Village, China.

13 June Rome – Over the past year severe droughts and floods have ruined harvests and left nearly 100 million people in southern Africa, Asia and Latin America facing food and water shortages.

Prolonged periods of drought take a severe toll on the land.

One key cause for concern for farmers is desertification, which is currently estimated to be 30 to 35 times the historical rate and advancing rapidly.

Desertification results from persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems due to climate variation and human activities.

"The only way to guarantee future food security is to guarantee the resilience of the land. We need to make sure that smallholder farmers have the resources they need to reduce the costs of climate change,'' said Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of IFAD.

Home to nearly a third of the human population in 2007, drylands occupy nearly half of Earth’s land area. When water scarcity hits, it limits the production of crops, forage, wood, and other services the ecosystems provide to small farmers.

"The challenge climate change poses to the world’s 500 million smallholder farms cannot be overlooked," said Margarita Astralaga, Director of IFAD's Environment and Climate Division, noting that desertification is responsible for 12 million hectares of land lost per year, equating to 20 million tons of lost grain.

" The effects of climate change and an increasing incidence of drought has exacerbated desertification processes. This has resulted in an alarming loss of arable farm land," she continued.

Increasing the resilience of the land

Desertification is a phenomenon that ranks among the greatest environmental challenges of our time. However, there are a variety of misconceptions regarding the phenomenon, from what the term actually means to which regions are most at risk.

"When you think of desertification you might just think of deserts and expanses of sand dunes with no life. This is not totally accurate, as sand dunes can be extremely rich ecosystems that are full of life," said Astralaga.

"Desertification is not solely the advance of deserts, it is also the persistent degradation of drylands. Whether arid or semi-arid zones, they are extremely valuable: as biodiversity hotspots, fertile farming soil, carbon sequestration sinks and homes to both people and animals," she continued.

According to  Astralaga, no continent, except Antarctica, is immune to desertification.  With 37 per cent of the world's arid zones, Africa faces the biggest challenge, with 66 per cent dryland or desert. However Australia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Italy, Laos, Nepal, Spain– all have drylands which are at risk.

This is what makes targeted approaches to slowing down desertification so important, says Nwanze. Both to increasing global food production and decreasing rural poverty.

“Eliminating rural poverty is not possible without addressing natural resource management and use of lands," said Nwanze.

How can we better manage land and soil?

As droughts continue to pose a threat to harvests and global food security, IFAD is urging governments to invest more in slowing down desertification and helping small farmers adapt to climate shocks.

''Further desertification is not inevitable,” said Astralaga. "Farming practices can be changed, made more sustainable and land and soils better managed.”

For example, there are technologies for renewable energies that can replace firewood, thereby reducing human pressure on landscapes and forests. Also, droughts can now be predicted, and planned for accordingly.

"With the right interventions at the right time, we can halt desertification, and sometimes reclaim the land,'' she said.

Helping farmers adapt to climate change

To help small farmers adapt to climate change, IFAD has been investing heavily in projects that support better land, water and drought management.

In the Syria Steppe, known as Badia, there are 10 million hectares of land, home to 12 million animals, which are severely degraded.

Through extensive work and close cooperation with the local herders and farmers, IFAD managed to restore vegetation to approximately one third of the rangelands.

By combining techniques such as resting land, limiting grazing, reseeding, planting shrubs, promoting indigenous species, improved irrigation and soil banks, the project has halted desertification in the area and reclaimed over a million hectares of land.

In Niger, deforestation had led to the loss of fertile soil.

An IFAD-supported project in the Department of Aguié has regenerated 100,000 hectares by protecting land from overgrazing and deforestation as well as by replanting trees.

Where before it was barren, there are now about 50 new trees per hectare.

In the Caatigna forest of Brazil, extended yearly droughts have devastated the landscape for years.

IFAD’s work with local communities has turned what was once a harsh landscape into an oasis with water tanks and irrigation schemes keeping the land fruitful and the families that rely on that land fed.

“IFAD has had many success stories in its fight against desertification and drought, but there is still a long way to go,” said Nwanze.

"Looking forward, we will take what has worked, scale that up and reclaim more lands. We will empower more rural farmers to sustainably manage their land so they can feed their families for generations to come and  move out of poverty for good.”