Millions of hectares 'lost to desertification yearly'

A woman draws water from a shallow well in Kapcheror village in Pokot North Sub County on February 25, 2022. [Peter Ochieng, Standard].

Drought is one of the most destructive natural disasters, with associated losses such as crop failure, wildfires and water stress.

As World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought (WDCDD) is marked globally today, a report dubbed Drought in Numbers 2022 has painted a grim picture, noting that the percentage of plants affected by drought has more than doubled in the last 40 years.

About 12 million hectares, it says, are lost each year to drought and desertification.

The publication says 72 per cent of women and 9 per cent of girls are burdened with collecting water, in some cases spending as much as 40 per cent of their calorific intake carrying it.

“Throughout the world, people are feeling the impacts of the climate and environmental crises most strongly through water: the land is drying up, fertile grounds are turning to dust and drought is prevailing,” says United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) executive secretary Mr Ibrahim Thiaw.

“In fact, since 1970, weather, climate and water hazards accounted for 50 per cent of all disasters and 45 per cent of all reported deaths. Tragically, nine in 10 of these deaths occurred in developing countries, where drought led to the largest human losses during this period.”

Drought has also been portrayed as a major driver of crop yield volatility and, in particular, causes low yields that can lead to substantial financial losses.

It comes in the wake of Kenya’s food crisis that has been attributed to the war in Ukraine, Covid-19 disruption on farming and largely prolonged droughts.

The country with 467,200 sq km considered arid and semi-arid is now looking at maize imports.

The National Treasury has so far issued a notice waiving the duty for importation of white maize from outside the East African Community as Agriculture CS Peter Munya projects bringing in some 540,000 tonnes.

“The moment we realise that food doesn’t come from Uber Eats or hotels and that critical farm produce like maize, vegetables and fruits are declining by the day because of degraded soils and decertification, we will feel the need to act now to restore our wasting soils,” said Ms Patricia Kombo, a soil activist.

Ms Kombo, 24, a UNCCD Land Hero and founder of PaTree Initiative, was among panellists lined up to speak at this year’s Desertification and Drought Day in Madrid, Spain.

The year’s theme of the International Day Against Desertification, and Drought “Rising up from drought together”, calls for urgent action to avoid disastrous consequences for humanity and the planetary ecosystems.

Mr Thiaw advises that one of the best and most comprehensive ways to act is through land restoration, which addresses many of the underlying factors of degraded water cycles and loss of soil fertility.

“We must build and rebuild our landscapes better, mimicking nature wherever possible and creating functional ecological systems. Restoration helps vulnerable communities adapt to drought by, for example, increasing water infiltration and retention, which increases agricultural production. Such measures would reduce the estimated 700 million people at risk of being displaced by drought by 2030,” he says.

Last year, about 23 million people were displaced in their own countries because of extreme weather events such as floods, wildfires and drought, according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

While severe drought affects Africa more than any other continent – accounting for 44 per cent of the global total over the past century, – 45 major drought events have also affected millions of people in Europe, an average of 15 per cent of the continent’s land and 17 per cent of its population.

The WDCDD is observed on June 17 every year since 1995 to promote public awareness of the dangers of desertification.

The day is also used as an opportunity to inform local and international communities about the implementation of the UNCCD in countries experiencing serious drought and desertification, particularly in Africa.