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Sands of time running out for anti-desertification campaign 

News that Saudi Arabia will host the largest ever UN convention to combat desertification reflects its urgency

Saudi desertification convention Martin Keulertz
High rainfall in mountainous areas causes floods in the lowlands, where a phenomenon called gully erosion makes agricultural production impossible

Saudi Arabia has announced it will host the 16th and, so far, largest ever UN Convention to Combat Desertification in December. 

This is an important initiative. It reflects recognition by a G20 member of the urgency of addressing desertification around the world at a time of climate change.

It will also be the first major ecological summit hosted by the kingdom and reflects a growing – and welcome – focus on environmental affairs.

The kingdom itself is no stranger to sand encroachment and loss of scarce fertile land. About 70 percent of land in Saudi Arabia is exposed to excess levels of desertification.

Intensive agriculture since the 1970s, and a neglect of rangeland management, combined with climate change, have caused a growing environmental emergency. 

Riyadh has announced that it will use technology such as AI to analyse satellite imagery and other data to detect areas most affected. Remote sensing technology will be used to observe rainfall, plant health and vegetation cover, and their changes over time. 

Afforestation projects under the umbrella of the “Green Saudi” initiative aim to plant 10 billion trees adapted to the local environment.

A new National Centre for Vegetation Development and Combating Desertification will work hand in hand with the Green Saudi initiative to develop drought-resistant trees and crops to restore and conserve the vegetation cover.

The kingdom has also announced that it will build a series of dams, including three at Trojena, and declared the formation of a dedicated water organisation.

Globally, according to the UN, 40 per cent of land is degraded. The land suffers from soil erosion and a lack of nutrients in the soil. It cannot withstand floods or droughts, which act to accelerate degradation.

Furthermore, degraded soils have a limited capacity to absorb carbon emissions, which in turn aggravates climate change.

About 3.2 billion people, two out of five of the world’s population, live in areas where soils are degraded.

This is no surprise, as human-induced disturbance of soils is a prime cause of decay. The overuse of fertilisers over time leads to greater soil salinity, and thus erosion.

People living in degraded areas apply more fertilisers because they need to maintain agricultural production to feed their populations. In the Mena region, the Egyptian delta, the once Fertile Crescent and the Sahel are subject to high levels of degradation. 

Gully erosion

The world economy is estimated to lose US$6.3 trillion to US$10.6 trillion annually because of the loss of potentially or once-fertile land. The brunt of the costs are borne by Asia and Africa.

A major problem is that costs accelerate further if no action is taken. High rainfall in mountainous areas such as in Ethiopia causes unmitigated floods in lowland areas, where the dangerous phenomenon of gully erosion is a common outcome. 

As the name suggests, the force of water and associated sedimentation coming from the mountains leads to the deformation and destruction of gullies in lowlands, rendering agricultural production impossible.

Infrastructure such as roads and buildings is washed away. The affected communities are often already threatened by poverty, and livelihoods are further undermined.

However, measures to address land degradation are feasible and comparatively cheap. It is a classic field in which experts in natural resources, and landscape and environmental management, can apply their skills, as interventions need to be carefully planned and implemented with the local community. 

For example, Swiss engineers have built small weirs across the Sahel to spread water run-off from mountains to inundate larger land areas and manage sedimentation flows.

MetaMeta, a Dutch NGO, has developed so-called “green roads”, which integrate water flows and road infrastructure to allow for rehabilitation and trade infrastructure to co-exist. 

saudi desertification conventionReuters/EFE
Tahani al Masaed is one of a group of women in Jordan working with the NGO Wadi to combat desertification by planting a million trees

Water harvesting techniques are manifold and have been well-tested across the world. A well-managed environment also regenerates biodiversity.

Agricultural production techniques also have to change. A recent focus on regenerative agriculture, which focuses on soil conservation and soil regeneration, is a crucial step.

Well-managed soil needs far less, if any, fossil fertilisers such as ammonia. It can withstand droughts and absorb water from floods far better than a degraded soil.

As usual, a major challenge is a lack of financial incentives and governance structures to encourage doing the right thing. We must bring green finance into the room. The cost of food may have to increase so that rural communities and investors earn a return. 

Action against desertification can provide much required employment for the young people on the African continent. All these topics deserve much higher political priority.

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification in Riyadh will provide an opportunity to accelerate global action.

Martin Keulertz is a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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