17 June has been the World Day to Combat Desertification since 1994. It promotes public awareness of the serious global problem of desertification, and encourages the implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in countries that experience severe drought.
Desertification, a type of land degradation in which a region of landscape dries out completely and becomes arid, losing its former vegetation and wildlife, is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time. It is an issue of global significance that has troubled humanity throughout the ages. Not only has it caused the displacement of populations, it has also contributed to the collapse of various great civilisations in the Mediterranean, the Mesopotamian Valley and the Loess Plateau of China.
Today, desertification is increasing at an estimated 30 to 35 times the historic rate. As a result, around 50 million people may be displaced in the coming decade, the vast majority of them in the developing world.
The connection between human activity and desertification is, unfortunately, very apparent.
Unsustainable farming, overgrazing, mining and deforestation are all devastating for dryland ecosystems.
To make matters worse, many countries chronically abstract more water than the environment can sustain. An estimated 1,100 – 3,300 mega litres are over-abstracted from rivers and aquifers in the UK every day.
Pollution, caused by human activity, affects the quality of water adversely, and fosters climate change. Climate change, in turn, increasingly exposes communities to changing rainfall patterns and causes glacial shrinkage, creating a vicious cycle of environmental degradation.
Population growth severely exacerbates desertification challenges. Globally, agricultural demand increases when population grows and people start consuming more farmed-animal products — a source of nutrition that is both space-inefficient and resource-inefficient.
Moreover, as communities grow, both industrial and residential needs increase as well.
Desertification will fuel migration, as humans cannot survive when their livestock and crops die — yet other countries will struggle to accommodate additional people.
Even with a stable population, climate change reduces the amount of ecologically productive land per person.
Improving irrigation techniques and reducing water use per capita will make a difference. Yet, reversing population growth — and thereby consumption growth — would relieve the strain on the ecosystem much further.
Therefore, Population Matters promotes smaller families, and lobbies actively for the empowerment of women, improved family planning facilities, and better sex education and reproductive health education.