If it’s true that humanity is “living off its ecological credit card and can only do so by liquidating the planet’s natural resources”, as Mathis Wackernagel, director of Global Footprint Network, puts it, then this credit is ostensibly drying out. The unsustainability of human behaviour is reflected in the dramatic deterioration of the earth’s land, which is already affecting between 1,5 to 2 billion people as the latest report by UNCCD, which was published on May 14, shows.
Desertification is, by definition, irreversible, as the UN Convention that is designed to prevent it well knows. In between, there are various degrees of progressive depletion and ruin. Although there is no official agreement about the extension of drylands and areas affected by desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD), the study estimates a worldwide range “between 33% and 41%, 46% in Africa”. In Europe, the report says, 13 countries are under threat.
Spain is well aware of this, to the extent that it has given funds and scientific support to the UNCCD research: “This is not just a global environmental issue, but also a societal and security issue”, writes Elena Espinosa, the Spanish Environment Minister. Although climate change is described here as the “key environmental driver” of the desertification process, overgrazing, overuse of land, poor irrigation methods and deforestation are doing the rest. During the last 40 years, there was an accumulated worldwide productivity loss of about 20%, currently estimated at 0,5 to 1% per year.
Forced migration is bound to follow any major food crisis due to progressive desertification (a few years ago it had been estimated that 60 million people from sub-Saharan Africa could be forced to migrate to Northern Africa and Europe by 2020). However, the future of the Mediterranean region, although not as dramatic as that, looks uncertain. Somebody described it as a place of “transition”, with many areas risking to become a desert, too. Back in 2004, a staggering 30% of Italian territory was considered at risk of desertification.
Today, extreme drought elsewhere in the world is shifting the focus of the problem, said Luc Gnacadja, UNCCD executive secretary general, in February this year: “The food crisis continues in countries that deal with erratic rainfall, like in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, many of these countries are food importers, so to see an extreme drought in Argentina, Australia, and now China, is indeed alarming”.
The food crisis, states the latest UNCCD report, “may become even more severe until 2050 and 2100 due to growing demand and declining supply. The interaction of these factors may result in extreme or fatal societal outcomes that will bring severe consequences” for security at all levels.
Some think it could happen even sooner. Back in 2006, news had come out that British military planners were already envisioning future conflict arising from the scramble for resources in 20 to 30 years’ time, when desertification, melting permafrost and flooding could lead to loss of agricultural land, poisoning of water supplies and destruction of economic infrastructure. Maxing out on the Earth’s credit card might also cost us terrorism and strife, soon enough.
20 April 2009