In places like Africa's Sahel region, on the southern edge of the Sahara desert droughts are not a new phenomenon, as they used to happen seven to 10 years. Now they are every other year
Vast swathes of land, from Africa to the Middle East, are being left useless by climate shifts and pressures such as deforestation, mining and farming, threatening to hike migration and conflict, Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification warned.The accelerating damage could cost the global economy a staggering $23 trillion by 2050 - and rich countries as well as poor will pay the price, he said.
In poor communities, ailing land "fragments families" and causes young people to leave home, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation."It creates friction and conflicts over access to land and water," he said. Even in richer places, land degradation around the world may mean some foods and other imported products people rely on will become more scarce, and migrant flows will increase, he said. "When young people from one part of the world cannot produce enough for their families, they will have to move to another place. And we cannot stop them from migrating." He continued, "I don't think the world will watch and feel they are not affected."
Efforts to cut the loss of productive land and restore damaged areas are underway, said Thiaw.
Nations from China to Ethiopia are planting large numbers of trees, working to capture and store more water, protecting wetlands and shifting to crop-growing and grazing styles that better protect fragile soils. Growing access to renewable energy - particularly solar and wind power - also is helping many rural areas protect land and incomes by providing clean, free energy for farm irrigation or powering food processing facilities that curb waste, he said.
"The knowledge is there, the technology is there - it can be done. But the scale at which it's being done at the moment is not enough to change the curve," he said. "We are still losing a lot of land," he added.
Thiaw, formerly a Mauritanian official and deputy chief of the U.N. Environment Programme, explained Mauritania, a traditional livestock-herding nation, has no forest left. "It's all degraded land. You have the population growing on the one hand and resources shrinking on the other."
In neighbouring conflict-hit Mali, he said, Dogon farmers and Fulani herders are fighting over resources as land suffers from growing heat and climate shifts, among other things.
"I know that area well and they do not hate each other. They are simply competing over land and water," Thiaw said.
Without swift action to keep more land viable and rehabilitate land that is no longer usable, threats ranging from hunger to forced migration and conflict could grow, he said.
"Land is really the economy. It's peace and security," he concluded.