29 October 2008While global attention is focused on crises ranging from energy to food security to climate change, a senior United Nations environmental expert today highlighted the “silent” crisis of desertification or land degradation, which, if tackled properly, can actually help address these other issues. “The land can be… an opportunity to solve most of the ongoing global crises,” Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), told a news conference in New York.The 2005 Convention aims to promote effective action through innovative local programmes and supportive international partnerships to combat desertification, which is the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. Caused mainly by human activities and climatic variations, desertification puts at risk the health and well-being of 1.2 billion people in more than 100 countries.Mr. Gnacadja stressed that “the nexus between land degradation and climate change is clear.” Global warming is likely to lead to more extreme weather events, such as droughts and heavy rains, which could lead to soil erosion and loss of land cover.At the same time, land degradation releases carbon into the atmosphere, worsening global warming and climate change. “If we want to tackle climate change challenges, we must look to the untapped potential of the soil to sequester carbon,” said Mr. Gnacadja, calling it a “win-win” situation. “By doing that, we are improving biodiversity of the soil ecosystem and improving the productivity of the soil, therefore impacting the livelihoods of affected populations.”Improving land productivity will also boost the capacity to produce more food and therefore tackle the issue of food security. “We are also making the world much more able to produce more agro-fuels,” he added.“An ecosystem is like a bank account,” Mr. Gnacadja noted. “If we keep on withdrawing, and we don’t invest by feeding the soil and enabling it to regenerate, we are moving towards bankruptcy.”The Second Global Assessment of Land Degradation and Improvement, issued this year, found that an additional 24 per cent of global land had been degraded in the period from 1981-2003. However, what was really worrisome is that these lands are mainly in humid areas where rainfall is not an issue.The Assessment also found that 16 per cent of land had been improved, including some of the drylands in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and Australia. “We know that drought and land degradation are predictable, and land degradation is reversible when the tipping point is not reached,” Mr. Gnacadja said, adding that the social and economic impacts on livelihoods are, therefore, to a large extent the result of “public and even global policy failure.” This includes the failure to scale up good practices, to spread available information and knowledge, and to mobilize the required resources.