A slightly different problem occurs with land ecosystems. These tend to be within one country, but the international community is still concerned with trying to protect them, particularly because some of the world’s poorest people live in areas threatened by rapid loss of productive capability through desertification, that is, the transformation of land areas into essentially uninhabitable deserts that cannot support human populations. This raises its own problems regarding a coordinated international strategy.

Dry land ecosystems such as grasslands and savannahs cover over one-third of the world’s land area and are home to many of the world’s poorest people, whose livelihoods depend critically on the land. Yet precisely because these ecosystems are not naturally lush, dry land areas are fragile and highly vulnerable to land degradation.

Desertification is caused by a combination of climactic variations and human activities. Untouched dry lands suffer during periods of drought, but are generally able to recover on their own. However, when these areas are simultaneously exploited for human economic gain, the combined stress on the ecosystem can be too much. Thus, over-cultivation, over-grazing, deforestation, and poor irrigation by humans play a large role in the desertification problem.

The results of desertification can be disastrous. The key effect is the loss of the primary resources—fertile topsoil, vegetation, and crops—that sustain economic activity. In impoverished regions, such as sub Saharan Africa, the ramifications are serious. If desertification progresses enough, the already marginalized people who depend on this land will find that the land can no longer provide enough food and water for survival. The result is famine that starves many people and animals, forces large displacements of populations, and entails massive economic disruption.

Though the effects of desertification are most alarming in poor regions, resultant loss of productivity is damaging for developed areas as well. Indeed, Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations, warned that, “Desertification… affects one-third of the earth’s surface, putting at risk 1.2 billion people in more than100 countries”(Dialo, 2007). A UN Convention to Combat Desertification press release stated that approximately $42 to 45 billion (est. 2009) in global income is lost annually, directly because of desertification. It would only cost $2.4 billion annually to prevent land degradation (UNCCD, 2009).

Recognizing the potentially catastrophic consequences of desertification, the international community created the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification(UNCCD). Agreed upon in 1994, the UNCCD went into force in 1996 and 193 countries had joined it as of June 2011. In 2007, the UNCCD released a 10 year strategy for the reduction of desertification, which will be effective from 2008 to 2018. Though the UNCCD addresses desertification in all parts of the world, the primary focus is on Africa, where it is a particularly pernicious problem. In 2013 the UNCCD established goals to end water scarcity through sustainable use of water resources, and awareness of drought.

Despite the UNCCD, desertification has not abated and may even be intensifying. The UNCCD seeks to prevent degradation through a combination of national action programs and participation of local communities in decision making. However, UNCCD relies on individual countries to raise funds and form partnerships with other countries as necessary and as possible in order to provide the means to carry out its stated goal.

Since, however, the problems caused by desertification are confined to individual countries, mainly poor ones to begin with; there has been no internationally coordinated effort to provide concrete financial help. Individual nations are affected within their own borders, making the problem seem to be the responsibility of each nation itself, rather than the international community as a whole. Even with the UNCCD, therefore, the nature of the problem has prevented the richer countries from committing to help the poorer countries with financial aid.

By contrast, in the case of oceans, the impediment to collective international action is the fact that no one nation feels responsible for a problem that affects many nations. In the case of desertification, many nations do not feel responsible for a problem that affects only one or several other countries within their own borders.


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