From 2011 to 2017, California, on the western coast of the United States, faced persistent droughts. Parts of India, Africa and many other nations are also no strangers to the malaise of this phenomenon.
Whether it is forests, farmlands, wetlands or any other ecosystem, land degradation and desertification are becoming a global issue. And as the world moves towards combating desertification, India, a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD), is set to host its upcoming Conference of Parties (COP14) in its capital New Delhi in September.
“This is the first time that India is going to host this UNCCD conference,” says Anuradha Singh, Director of the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change. This biennial UN conference is to be held at India Expo Mart and representatives and ministers from across the globe are scheduled to attend it. As a host country, India will also be taking over the COP presidency for the next two years from China.
Anuradha Singh elaborates on her country’s work to combat degradation: “India is committed to the goal of land degradation neutrality. Currently, we are in the process of setting the voluntary targets to achieve this goal. The exercise will get over in the next few months. We already have enough funds for the purpose, and to tackle the issue, it needs to be mainstreamed into existing programmes and schemes.”
The UNCCD estimates around 20% of the world’s land is degraded. Land degradation is the loss in land productivity caused by environmental and human factors. This convention, with 197 countries as its signatories, strives to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) by the year 2030. LDN is a state in which further land degradation is prevented and already degraded land can be restored.
The situation in India
The percentage of India’s degraded land stands at 30%, a figure that exceeds the global average by 10%. But in an interview with 7DNews at a training session arranged at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) ahead of the COP14, Sasha Alexander, a policy officer at UNCCD’s secretariat says, “The world average of 20% is a conservative global percentage. So, India also stands at an average level as many other countries. In the case of Australia, it has gone through a ten-year drought, which has affected its assessment. Similar is the case of India, which experiences frequent droughts. But in the end, there is a lot of natural regeneration and good practices in India, which are keeping the balance.”
Adding to it, S Vijay Kumar, a Distinguished Fellow at TERI says, “Some countries like those in North Africa or West Africa for instance may have a higher proportion of degraded lands for natural reasons. Degradation due to climate change will also affect different countries to different extents. The world average can be very misleading. One metric is to look at the degradation over time, to see if over decades the proportion of degraded land is increasing. Unfortunately, this is true for India, and many parts of the developing world.”
Highlighting the reasons behind degradation in India, Kumar points out that India has 2.4% of global land mass, 4% of water resources, 17% of the human population and 15% of world livestock. “India is also a country of high levels of poverty. These are some of the reasons why our land degradation profile is the way it is,” he says.
To tackle the challenges that India faces, mainly related to resource endowments and population pressure, in achieving LDN by 2030, Kumar says, “We have to use our resources more efficiently, with less wastage (of water, of land, of agricultural produce which requires land, of urban spaces etc.), and more sustainably in terms of ensuring water recharge and soil carbon replenishment.”
“We have to get out of the vicious circle: poverty leading to unsustainable land use, which exceeds the carrying capacity and thus causes land degradation,” Kumar says. “Land degradation reduces incomes and livelihoods and thus reinforces poverty, and the cycle starts all over again. Poverty reduction is therefore the foremost challenge, and of course it has to be addressed by multiple measures, those of short, medium and long term.”
Have the decades of government investments yielded results?
India is an agrarian country and thus degraded farmlands have been causing a lot of angst amongst the farmers. For more than a decade, the government has been investing in various schemes to tackle droughts. However, the situation does not seem to have improved for the farmers.
Answering this question for 7D News, A Ravindra from WASSAN, a national level resource support organisation, says, “The investments made are a pittance compared to what is required for the magnitude of the problem. A programme called ‘Watershed development’ is the only one where some investments are made, which are quite successful in several cases. But the rest of the investments are 'perverse incentives' that actually aggravated the problem. Electricity subsidies for borewells (in the state of Andhra Pradesh electricity is free), coupled with subsidies in micro-irrigation and horticulture have led to the expansion of intensive irrigated horticulture in dry lands. In the name of water use efficiency, sprinklers and drips are provided 90% subsidised instead of switching to planting crops, which need less water.”
He further adds that long term productivity of land is related to soil organic matter (SOM), which acts as a major sink and source of soil carbon. “We have not invested even a single rupee in enhancing soil organic matter. And just adopting measurement and diagnosis practices such as soil health cards and others would not help. What is needed are actual investments in soils,” he says.
Dr Pia Sethi, a Senior Fellow and Area Convenor at the Centre for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Forestry and Biodiversity Division at TERI says it is not just the agricultural lands, but the degradation of other ecosystems such as grasslands, forests, wetlands and others that have also been adding to the cost of degradation in the country. Based on a research by their organisation, the estimated economic losses due to such degradation of various ecosystems is burdening the GDP. “From whatever data was available, we have found out that the annual costs of degradation are actually higher than total costs of reclamation by 2030. So, it actually makes sense to invest in reclamation in the long run,” she says.
What to expect out of COP 14
Over 3,000 participants from all over the world are expected to participate in COP14. The parties to the Convention will agree on the actions that each will take over the next two years and beyond to push us onto a sustainable development path.
Ministers from 196 countries, scientists and representatives of national and local governments, non-governmental organizations, city leaders, the private sector, industry experts, women, youth, journalists as well as faith and community groups will share their expertise and agree on the most viable solutions. New actions will be guided by an assessment of the outcomes of the decisions taken two years ago.
Desertification, land degradation and drought are huge challenges. But investing in the land and its stewards can open up vast opportunities for the economy and environmental resilience.
COP14 is aiming to help countries achieve Land Degradation Neutrality by delivering tools and resources that are fit for purpose. Tools that are built on accurate and reliable science and data, participatory processes and compromise will benefit everyone.
Countries can withstand future environmental challenges better by optimizing land management and massively scaling up sustainable practices and the restoration of degraded land.