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In the battle against desertification, solutions exist

by William Dar | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 21 October 2011 15:05 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By William Dar

Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, which has planted millions of trees, passed away on 25th September 2011. The first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, she understood the importance of involving local communities for a more sustainable environment – and the importance of pointing out the causes of desertification.

While 193 nations party to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) gather in Changwon in Korea to discuss what can be done to stop rapid global land degradation, we need to do more to follow the pioneering example of Wangari Maathai.

Despite successive warnings about the problem and despite tree planting campaigns in the Sahel and other degraded arid-lands regions, desertification is still progressing fast. More than 12 million hectares of productive land are lost due to desertification every year, the equivalent of losing al of France’s arable land every 18 months.

Saving land from irreversible degradation should be a global fight tackled with local, national and regional solutions, because solving the world’s food security concerns means keeping lands productive.


The livelihoods of many people depend on that: one third of the world’s population lives in drylands, where land degradation is hurting food supplies, biodiversity, water quality and soil fertility. Many of the world’s poorest and most food-insecure people live off these lands as small-scale farmers and herders. Because they have no fallback options if the land deteriorates, they are the worst hit by desertification.

At a recent UN General Assembly meeting on desertification and drought, UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja said, "If we do not take bold actions to protect, restore and manage land and soils sustainably, we will not alleviate rural poverty and hunger, ensure long-term food security (or) build resilience to drought and water stress. This will lead to consequences including more political conflicts over scarce resources and continued forced migrations."

The meeting proposed the establishment of a scientific advisory panel on land and soil degradation. Science is essential to identify the drivers of desertification and highlight the most appropriate actions to stop it. Donors must have a clear idea of how big the problem is and feel confident that progress in overcoming desertification can be measured.

Solutions exist to help communities improve their livelihoods in harsher environments. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is working with local, national and international partners on initiatives that revitalize soils and conserve water, enabling communities to achieve healthy diets and incomes from otherwise degraded or soon-to-become degraded lands.

An effort known as bio-reclamation of degraded lands shows how women’s groups could revitalize barren lands by using simple water and soil conservation techniques such as zai pits (planting holes dug into the soil) to plant drought-tolerant trees and crops, or applying fertilizer by the capfuls to plant roots, a technique known as microdosing.

In West Africa, most women have no or few rights to agricultural land so ICRISAT has been working with local NGOs to help women form associations and gain access to village wasteland which is communal.

Scientists have helped these women’s groups to plant a range of crops, food-producing trees and high value vegetables using zai pits and demi lunes (crescent shape dugout pits) to harvest rainwater and concentrate nutrients for the plants.


This research shows that degraded lands can be made productive by using a range of simple techniques. Examples of trees planted include the hardy Apple of the Sahel, with 10 times the vitamin C of ordinary apples and rich in calcium, iron, and phosphorus, and Moringa trees, whose leaves contain four times the vitamin A in carrots, four times the calcium and double the protein in milk, and three times the potassium in bananas.

Planting drought-tolerant pigeon pea also helps soil fertility by fixing nitrogen in the soil, and gives harvests even when rainfall is scarce as well as trapping pests that would otherwise attack and damage the okra women plant in zai pits.

It is even more important to see how we can prevent soils getting to the degraded state in the first place.  By involving farmers insustainable water and soil management, Kothapally, a village in Andhra Pradesh, India, that was previously below the poverty line due to recurrent drought, is now prosperous and serving as a model for other villages in Thailand, Vietnam, China and Africa.

Soil fertility is key, and farmers have been shown how to test their soil's condition and treat it like a living entity- doing a soil health check and then feeding in the nutrients that are missing so the soil recovers before it’s too late. By adding nutrients (like zinc and boron) into exhausted soil, farmers are getting better and more nutritious harvests.

But we need global partnership between governments, experts, civil society and local populations to scale up successful projects. We also need a transparent debate to point to the roots of desertification if we don’t want to spoil the land we borrow from our children.

William Dar is director-general of the Inter­national Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Andhra Pradesh, India.