Desertification has emerged as a critical problem across the world, specially due to climate change and global warming. This has led to increase in droughts in most countries. As regards India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the country’s commitment to raise the target for restoring degraded land from 21 million to 26 million hectares by 2030, while speaking at the recently-concluded 14th session of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification held in Delhi.
In fact, experts fear that land degradation would become impossible to reverse. Apart from having adverse health implications, this is expected to render land unproductive and unfit for agriculture. Modi rightly referred to the need for augmenting water supply, enhancing water recharge, slowing down water run-off and retaining moisture in the soil to tackle the menace of desertification. Experts believe that if proper emphasis is accorded on ‘global water action plan’, this may serve the twin objectives of water conservation and land restoration, leading to achieve ‘land degraded neutrality’, which India is expected to achieve by end-2019.
In the meantime, a recent study conducted by the Indian Institute Meteorology (IITM), revealed that during El Nino years, pollutants from South Asian countries can amplify the effect of the climate cycle on the monsoon, worsening an ongoing drought situation. The study stated that severity of droughts during El Nino years was amplified by 17 per cent due to changes in aerosol pollution (a cloud or solid or liquid particles). It further pointed out that pollutant loading in the Asian Tropopause Aerosol Layer — a high altitude layer of pollutants — reduced the amount of solar radiation in the monsoon region, thereby aggravating the severity of drought by further weakening the monsoon circulation.
Increase in industrial emissions from India and China added millions of metric tonnes of aerosols into the atmosphere and this aerosol emission will have an adverse impact on the severity of droughts over the monsoon region,” observed Dr. Suvarna Fadnavis, of IITM. Meanwhile, the study found that El Nino led to a decrease in rainfall over India, with a monsoon rainfall suppressed by 2 mm to 6 mm per day. Added to this is the effect of aerosols and the decrease in rainfall of around 17 per cent over Central India.
Delving into the causes of desertification, the rise in droughts is primarily due to mismanagement of water resources where not enough rain is being recharged or water used inefficiently and inequitably. Though there are frequent floods, the sheer inability to plan for drainage as also lack of concern to protect the forests on watersheds or the near criminal act of building and destroying the flood plains.
The fact that temperatures are increasing, intense heat events are being witnessed in many parts of the world. There is more heat and dust everywhere as emissions continue to increase, specially in big cities and industrial towns. In the South Asian sub-continent, temperatures have spiked to unimaginable levels. As is agreed by experts, high temperature means less moisture on the ground, leading to desertification.
There are reports of deaths every year from heat waves and in 2008, over 500 people died in northern Indian States from dust storms. For the past decade or so, every year the temperature increase is higher than the previous year, as per WMO records.
One may refer here to a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2019 that rightly indicted modern agricultural practices for using more and more chemicals, pesticides etc. and adding to GHG emissions. The need to increase productivity in countries like India and Pakistan to feed an ever-expanding population as also to boost up earnings of the farming community has necessitated this use, along with calling for a change in diets.
The desertification convention signed way back in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio may not have seriously been considered by member countries. Desertification was not a global issue at that time but now the situation has changed. Today, it is undoubtedly a major problem and needs cooperation between nations. Experts believe that the crisis is becoming more and more deadly as temperatures continue to increase and intervention is required to ensure that this spiral does not get out of hand
The answer to the causes of desertification is the need for massive green cover as also checking over withdrawal of groundwater and judicious irrigation practices. No doubt, trees are being planted, reports of which we often read in the media. But this is precious little compared to felling of trees and destruction of forests that is occurring in most countries, including India.
As regards water efficiency, there is need to point out that people in India, specially in the eastern and north-eastern parts, misuse water as this natural asset is available in abundance. But the problem is acute in the western and southern parts of the country. Thus, there is need for a massive awareness campaign for judicious use of water as also ensuring utmost water efficiency as has been done in the case of tree plantation.
A point that needs to be emphasised is that land degradation or droughts primarily affect the poor and the economically weaker sections who mostly reside in rural areas. As has been stated repeatedly at various international conferences, the poor of the world, who are generally voiceless, are the victims of human induced disaster as they lose livelihood and become shelterless, thereby going against established notions of sustainable development.
Most governments with a centralised governance system are not quite aware of the problems that people face at the grass-root levels due to desertification, land and soil degradation etc. Unfortunately, there are umpteen resolutions as well as big promises, both at the global or national levels, with no real intervention in remote areas where the actual problem persists.
Therefore, there is an urgent and imperative need to get serious and delve deep into the crisis, specially in the Asian countries, including India, and chalk out a framework that must be adopted at their national level. Also cooperation and collaboration between nations at the regional and global levels for technology sharing could go a long way in tacking desertification. With India taking over the Presidentship of the Convention, reviving degraded land is imperative to increase agricultural production and productivity and this is specially relevant for South Asian countries. Thus, it is recommended that the onus is now on New Delhi to revive lands in a phased manner. Sooner the better!