“Desertification is a phenomenon occurring in the great Sahara desert”. Well if you are of this view point then you surely need to brush up your ecological senses. Desertification is not new. The Sumerian and Babylonian empires are among several ancient civilizations thought to have declined more rapidly after their agricultural output fell because of prolonged desiccation and water scarcity. Deserts expand naturally, but "desertification" is a different process where land in arid, semi-dry areas becomes degraded, soil loses its productivity and vegetation thins because of human activities and/or prolonged droughts/floods. Desertification occurs when:
- the tree and plant cover that binds the soil is removed. It occurs when trees and bushes are stripped away for fuel wood and timber, or to clear land for cultivation.
- animals eat away grasses and erode topsoil with their hooves.
- intensive farming depletes the nutrients in the soil.
In 1994, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was adopted “to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought in countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, in particular in Africa”, is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development issues to the land agenda.. The world has recognized the degradation of dry lands by proclaiming 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification and by observing World Day to Combat Desertification on 17 June. The Convention addresses specifically the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, known as the drylands, where some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and peoples can be found. In the 10-Year Strategy of the UNCCD (2008-2018) that was adopted in 2007, Parties to the Convention further specified their goals: "to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought in affected areas in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability".
The UNCCD urges affected country Parties to align their action programmes, as well as other relevant implementation activities relating to the Convention, to the UNCCD's 10-Year Strategy. India became a signatory to the UNCCD on 14th October 1994 and it came into effect on 17th March 1997. One of the obligations of all developing country Parties to the Convention, including India, is to prepare the National Action Programme to Combat Desertification and to mitigate the effects of drought.
As a signatory to the UNCCD, India has been meeting its obligations through implementation of various programmes and reporting the progress to the UNCCD every 4 years. The fourth National Report has been submitted to the UNCCD secretariat.
Besides the above programme several schemes have been implemented jointly by India and UNCCD:
Land for Life Award:
The Land for Life Award was launched at the tenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) seeking to promote efforts for sustainable land management. The Land for Life Award will provide global recognition to individuals, teams, institutions, businesses, research institutes, public offices, political leaders, decision-makers, journalists, media, nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations whose work and initiatives have made a significant and innovative contribution to sustainable land management.
The Award will reward initiatives which contribute directly or indirectly to the regeneration and/or enhancement of soils' natural health and productive capacity or to the sustainable regeneration of depleted or drought affected lands. The inaugural prizes were won by organizations from Haiti, Uganda and Turkey.
The Sustainable Land and Ecosystem Management (SLEM) Programme:
The Sustainable land and Ecosystem Management (SLEM) Programme is a joint initiative of the Government of India and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) under the latter’s Country partnership Programme (CPP).The objective of the SLEM Programmatic Approach is to promote sustainable land management and use of biodiversity as well as maintain the capacity of ecosystems to deliver goods and services while taking into account climate change.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests, as the National Focal Point for the implementation of the Convention, initiated the process of preparation of National Action Programme through the setting up of a High-Level Inter-Sectoral National Steering Committee (NSC) in July 1999. The NSC decided to constitute four Working Groups (WG) on various issues relevant to desertification. These are:
- WG#1- Desertification Monitoring and Assessment,
- WG#2- Sustainable Land Use Practices for Combating Desertification,
- WG#3 - Local Area Development Programme, and
- WG#4 - Policy and Institutional Issues
Policies and acts:
Though India does not have a specific policy or legislative framework for combating desertification as such, the concern for arresting and reversing land degradation and desertification gets reflected in many of our national policies (for e.g., National Water Policy 1987; National Forest Policy 1988; National Agricultural Policy 2000; National Environmental Policy 2006; National Policy for Farmers 2007; National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA)- 2007) which have enabling provisions for addressing these problems.
To this effect several laws have been legislated, a few of them are:
- Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980
- Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
- Biodiversity Act, 2002
Sixth five year plan (1980-85)- Constitution of the Department of Environment. Land degradation issues also received attention with the setting up of the National Wastelands Development Board (NWDB).
The programmes for combating desertification under the NATIONAL ACTION PROGRAMME can be broadly classified under the following major areas:
- Social sector programmes based on community and human development and particularly at the local level.
- Programmes specifically for poverty eradication
- Programmes for conservation of natural resources.
- Programmes for eco-restoration of degraded lands.
- Programmes specially for desert and drought prone regions
- Measures to combat and mitigate the effects of drought.
The problem remains:
Although a number of schemes have been initiated yet the prime task still remains of creating awareness among the masses. People are still rampantly cutting down forests; barely 20% of the original existing virgin forests of earth remain. Of late some positive activities like afforestation, laws preventing logging, poaching etc have been legislated but the sad part is the lack of strict implementation of the law. What you need is a sense of urgency and a strong will to act. Taking a vow, not to cut trees or allow others to do the same by bringing it to the notice of the concerned authorities. Anything which is forced upon the citizens is difficult to implement but the moment citizens begin to take interest in the activity and consider environment as a part of their life and their moral responsibility to protect the same, the several million hectares of barren land affected by desertification can be brought to life again. UNCCD and MOEF should merely serve as a facilitator and promoter not as a regulator and enforcer, only then could we experience a positive change. Our responsibility must not end at earning a living for us and our families but also making the environment greener to earn its own. In this light we have the concept of CSR i.e. Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable development.
Desertification is nearly as critical as climate change - this is something we must understand. Traditional practices of water storage and conservation and mixed farming that integrates perennial trees and grasses with crop cultivation and livestock rearing, which proved as best practices for sustainability and resource conservation, are now disappearing. As a consequence, about 92% area in arid Rajasthan is now affected by desertification. About three hundred years ago, several hundred members of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan, led by a woman, Amrita Devi, attempted to save their sacred Khejri trees by clinging to them. They were not psychopaths but people who could foresee that the race for survival in the future culminating in the forests and not in barren deserted lands. Those sacred groves, kunds, tanks and other traditional methods of water and forest conservation need to be brought back because the earth and its citizens need more than just the small tulsi or money plant in your house. As a first step start with E-bill, it will go a long way in reducing logging.
Civils India, environment and ecology
Rajan Agarwal is concerned with the devastating effects of desertification. You can share your views with him at firstname.lastname@example.org