Desertification top takes place amid fears that land degradation may increase forced displacement

From September 2 until September 13, the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP14) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) took place in India. “Restore land, sustain future” is the slogan of the conference. The UNCCD connects environmental and development issues to sustainable land management. The aim of COP14 is to discuss the problem of desertification and to develop actions to reduce the effects of drought in order to improve the lives of people that are affected by land degradation. However, as climate change is compounding the effects of land degradation, caused by events such as prolonged drought and excessive rainfall, it is feared that forced displacement may increase from areas that are hit particularly hard, such as the Horn of Africa.

Environmental migration
On september 6, The Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) published an interview with Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UNCCD. In that interview, Thiaw underlines the importance of COP14. He argues that action should be undertaken to keep land viable; otherwise hunger, conflict and forced migration will grow. “Land is really the economy. It’s peace and security,” Thiaw said.

In the same week, International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that the negative impacts of climate change and land degradation are very visible in the Horn of Africa. This region consists mainly of dry land. The presence of frequent and severe droughts in the last few years damaged the area and made large parts of land likely to degrade. Climate change is aggravating the situation. Many people in the Horn of Africa region rely on local natural resources and subsistence farming. Droughts lead to food losses and worsening living conditions.“When young people from one part of the world cannot produce enough for their families, they will have to move to another place. And we cannot stop them from migrating,” Thiaw stated in the TRF article.

In a report of September 12, The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre noted that “In today’s changing climate, mass displacement triggered by extreme weather events is becoming the norm”. News trust reports that land degradation, alongside climate change and loss of biodiversity, could force up to 700 million people to leave their country by 2050.

Resources needed
In the interview with TRF, Thiaw stated that: “[t]he accelerating damage could cost the global economy a staggering $US 23 trillion by 2050 – and rich countries as well as poor will pay the price”. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, argues that Africa needs additional resources to adapt to climate change and tells Inter Press Service: “Africa has been shortchanged in terms of climate change because the continent accounts for only 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions but it suffers disproportionately from the negative impacts.”

Thiaw suggests that, to deal with land degradation, the use of land needs to be rethought. Land not suitable for agriculture could be used to produce meat for export. Also, private money is needed to close the funding gap in Africa. Investments that, for example, turn infertile land into tourist attractions or restore old mines as lakes for leisure, are necessary, says the UNCCD secretary.

Thiaw remains optimistic about the future. According to him there are many promising initiatives going on to fight land degradation. On day 10 of COP14, ‘Draught Toolbox’ was launched; a web page that provides stakeholders with information on how to respond to drought risk. Not everyone shares Thiaw’s positivism. An official of India’s Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) informs Down To Earth that it is worrying that “none of the countries have set numerical targets for LDN [Land Degradation Neutrality]”.

Considering the impact of climate change on land degradation, it is likely that forced displacement from areas in Africa that are hit especially hard, such as the Horn of Africa, may increase.