By Vivian Futran Fuhrman

19 November 2014 - 10:00

'Desertification will ultimately damage the planet's ability to provide what we need to live.'
'Desertification will ultimately damage the planet’s ability to provide what we need to live.' Image ©

Santiago Medem under CC BY SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The 'Drylands, Deserts and Desertification' conference, organised by Ben Gurion University’s Blaustein Institute for Desert Research (BIDR) in Israel, with a panel discussion hosted by the British Council, takes place this week on 17-20 November. Vivian Futran Fuhrman, PhD candidate at Ben Gurion University, explains why desertification is a threat to us all.

What is desertification?

'Desertification' is a word most people have probably heard, at least those fortunate enough to have finished secondary school. It is a process of land degradation occurring in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. It occurs where the ratio of annual precipitation to evapotranspiration (the sum of water released via evaporation and plant transpiration, akin to human sweating) falls within a specific low range. Simply put, it's when dry land becomes drier and less productive due to various causes, including climatic variations and human activities.

It is important to distinguish between deserts, which are a healthy feature of earth’s natural tapestry, and human-driven desertification, which is a process that diminishes the ecosystem.

Human activities and their effect on the planet

At the United Nation’s 1992 Rio Earth Summit, desertification, climate change, and loss of biodiversity (i.e. the variability among living organisms) were identified as the greatest obstacles to 'sustainable development' -- the ability of humans to advance socially, economically and environmentally in the present without harming the ability of future generations to do the same.

These three challenges reflect how anthropogenic changes (i.e., changes caused by humans) can alter the fate of the entire planet. Human behaviours such as slashing and burning rain forests to clear land for agriculture, cutting down trees to harvest wood, draining wetlands or clearing greenery to build cities, and driving fossil-fuel-burning vehicles all contribute to the problem. Moreover, fuel consumption and destructive land-use habits are influencing an entire network of historic environmental cycles.

Climate change has probably generated the most interest in the media, but everything in the natural system is connected and affected: temperatures, water currents, wind patterns, the intensity of natural disasters, and biodiversity, water availability (or scarcity), and so on.

Tackling desertification

Desertification ultimately threatens to damage the planet’s ability to provide what we need to live. It is a challenge humanity faces as a whole, in which we sink or swim together. Whether we can reverse this process depends on us.

Governments have been called on to overhaul our most environmentally perilous habits in order to fend off the consequences.

There have also been attempts to 'arrest' or halt desertification on an individual, regional and country-level through projects all over the world. However, these have not been enough to reduce the degradation of land and resources that threaten ecological and human health.

In response, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) set a target in 2012 of 'zero net land degradation' by 2030, which takes a different approach: maintaining a constant total amount of degraded land globally.

In many countries, there are projects attempting to meet this goal by helping to tip the balance towards neutrality, or even offset total degradation by reclaiming degraded land.

Today, we can go one step further by using the connections between climate change, biodiversity, and desertification to shift human behaviour towards environmental health and sustainability.

The fifth conference in this series will feature a special UK-Israel panel hosted by the British Council Israel and chaired by Professor Uriel Safriel and Dr Nick Middleton. It brings together researchers and students from different countries and disciplines. Their published reports are used to advise governments on the issue.

The Symposium marks the first official event in the British Council's Water Research Initiative in co-operation with Oxford University and Ben Gurion University.

You might also be interested in: