CAIRO: Ten years after its inception, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is dropping the term ‘desertification’ from its official name.
It will be replaced with the phrase ‘land degradation,’ said Dr Ismail El-Bagouri, a desertification – or rather land degradation – consultant at the Desert Research Center in Cairo.
“The step was taken as the convention began to lay down its new strategy aimed at facing the dramatic decrease in arable land worldwide during the coming decade, said El-Bagouri, who is also a member of the science and technology committee at the UNCCD.
For now, the UN department will be called the UN Convention for Combating Desertification/Land Degradation, until the word ‘desertification’ is dropped completely in 2009.
“The change in name has to transpire gradually to prevent confusion. After 10 years of operations, we found that the term ‘desertification’ doesn’t project the meaning and aim of the convention.
“It gave the impression that it only focused on countries with desert territories, but this isn’t the case. The number of countries losing arable land for different reasons has shockingly shot up from 50 to 192, resulting in annual losses estimated at $80 billion.
Land degradation was identified as the ideal term to describe the condition of much of the world’s cultivable land today, which is threatened by some form of deterioration.
Examples are found in China, India, Japan and even the United States, where the productivity of soil is totally or partially jeopardized due to floods, landslides, torrential rain or the invasion of desert lands, as in the case of Egypt.
“Take, for example, the torrential rains which hit parts of China or India, said El-Bagouri. “These result in mudslides that eliminate entire villages and bury the plantations and deface the soil. It will take years [for the soil] to reassume its former shape and productivity.
“Another example is the deforestation in South America and Latin America.
Once the gigantic trees are removed, soil erosion follows, causing the soil’s surface layers – the most fertile part of any arable land – to drift to the nearest lakes, dams or rivers. This is why it is recommended that seedlings should be planted immediately before that kind of loss materializes.
“The factors vary from region to region but the results are the same: land degradation, he said.
The new strategy consists of identifying the affected areas and then laying down assessment and monitoring plans to avoid land degradation by taking immediate rehabilitation measures.
The assessments will be carried out on national, regional, and international levels, which will often entail nations joining together to find solutions. The international nature of land degradation is illustrated by the sandstorms that often hit Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman, requiring joint action.
But what about land degradation in Egypt?
According to El-Bagouri, Egypt has lost at least 750,000 acres of fertile land around the Nile Valley due to construction on cultivable soil.
In addition to this, three major factors have hampered the productivity of land: the salt deposited by irrigation water in the absence of a proper drainage systems; rising pollution levels due to increased use of pesticides; and the encroachment of desert sands along those stretches of the Nile Valley that border the desert.
“The invasion of desert sands in these areas reduces the productivity of 1.8 million acres by 15 percent every year. Locally we’re considering the idea of raising cactus fences along these areas, said the expert.
“Besides providing the required protection for the land, the cactus is a desert plant that also yields edible figs (known locally as teen-shouky) and stores water for the consumption of desert herds.
“Those are our problems and we have to solve them either locally or in cooperation with other countries and organizations, he concluded.