World Day to Combat Desertification: Harnessing technology to cope with drought and water scarcity

13 JUNE 2013 – Contrary to a common misconception, the term ‘desertification' does not refer to advancing deserts, though it can involve the encroachment of sand dunes on arable land. Rather, desertification is the persistent degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas known as drylands. Over time, such degradation creates desert-like conditions.

Desertification can result from overgrazing, over-cultivation, deforestation and poorly planned irrigation systems. Climate change exacerbates the problem, as frequent droughts, floods and other extreme weather events accelerate land degradation, exhausting the soil's capacity to support agriculture. As a result, desertification annually depletes about 12 million hectares of cultivable land, enough to grow 20 million tonnes of grain.

For a billion people around the world who live in dryland regions, halting that trend is an urgent priority – a priority that is in the spotlight on 17 June, World Day to Combat Desertification, an annual United Nations observance. This year, the day is dedicated to raising awareness and taking action on the increasing scarcity of freshwater required to sustain crops and livestock, and ensure food security in drylands.

Effective action
Farmer tills dry ground in Gansu Province, China. ©IFAD/Qilai ShenBecause desertification threatens food security, IFAD invests substantial resources in support of drylands agriculture. At the same time, IFAD and its partners are harnessing information and communications technologies, or ICTs, to help poor rural people cope with the impact of water scarcity, desertification and drought.

These cutting-edge technologies – most notably, satellite imaging – are being used to implement the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). They have the potential to facilitate more effective action on the problem by providing reliable data about weather conditions and crop yields in regions at risk.

Last year, for example, the Weather Risk Management Facility, a joint initiative of IFAD and the World Food Programme, launched a research project on the use of satellite data to show when crop stress occurs on smallholder farms. Ultimately, this data could enable the wider adoption of weather index-based insurance for farming households that lose their crops to severe droughts and other extreme weather events. Unlike traditional forms of crop insurance, weather index insurance eliminates the need to track individual farmers' crop losses. As such, it allows for timely assistance that can help to boost the resilience of poor rural people affected by desertification.

Preserving livelihoods
IFAD is also working with the European Space Agency (ESA) on using satellites to plan, monitor and assess rural development projects in several nations. By consistently measuring soil productivity, crop yields and rainfall, satellite data can help dryland farmers and herders preserve their livelihoods in the face of severe, frequent droughts.

In the drought-prone Tahoua, Zinder and Maradi regions of Niger, for instance, IFAD and ESA are exploring the use of earth observation to help increase the productivity of agricultural and pastoral households. With satellite data provided by ESA, they are monitoring and analyzing changes in land use, crop acreage and irrigation patterns. Once this kind of innovation is tested and taken to scale, it could guide interventions aimed at reducing the risks of drought and water scarcity – and sustaining healthy soils – in the drylands of the Sahel.

But desertification is a global issue that demands global partnerships, such as IFAD's alliance with the Global Environment Facility, which provides grants to developing countries for projects that contribute to the sustainable intensification of agriculture. This year's World Day to Combat Desertification serves as a reminder that land degradation does not have to threaten the future of poor rural people or the planet as a whole. If the international community is serious about taking action on water scarcity, desertification and drought, there are solutions to these daunting challenges.