One-third of the world’s land, some four billion hectares, is degraded. In India, degradation has hit 96 million hectares, 29.32% of all the land in the country. Almost all countries have signed a pledge to reach net land degradation neutrality by 2030. That means they have promised to restore as much land as is being degraded. How will they manage?

That is the crux of the agenda as India hosts the once-in-two-years summit of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) on the outskirts of capital New Delhi. The September 2-13 COP (Conference of Parties, as countries are called in UN parlance) will see India take over the COP presidency from China, which had hosted the last summit in Ordos.

Prakash Javadekar, India’s Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, and President of the COP, announced in the previous week that India would restore five million hectares of degraded land by 2030. “We will achieve this by adopting a landscape restoration approach and will ensure that there is no let loss in terms of land degradation,” the minister said.

Worsening land degradation

Land degradation is worsening by the day as populations go up in countries around the world, even as the ill-effects of chemical fertilisers and pesticides make themselves felt and climate change weakens the ability of the soil to recover. This has serious implications, with many studies concluding that the civil wars in Syria and Yemen can be traced to land degradation.

Humanity needs to manage land more efficiently to avoid a climate breakdown, a United Nations scientific report warned earlier in August. Growing human pressure is already degrading land globally and climate change is adding to these pressures, it said. Crucially, better land management alone will not be enough to solve the problem. It has to go hand in hand with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if global warming is to be restrained well below 2 degrees Celsius, the report said.

See: Manage land better to prevent catastrophic breakdown

The Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL) has been prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN agency that assesses the science related to climate change. Its summary for policymakers was approved by the world’s governments on August 7 in Geneva, Switzerland. The report by the world’s leading body of climate scientists has been in the making for over two years and offers the most comprehensive assessment of the close linkages between the climate breakdown and the way humans use land, including for agriculture and forestry.

Human activity such as agriculture and deforestation affects 75% of the Earth’s land surface, causing widespread land degradation. The changes in land use in the past century already cause as much as 23% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

Killer droughts

Former UNCCD chief Monique Barbut has pointed out that drought kills more people than all other calamities such as floods, storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions put together. She has also said land degradation is the main reason why residents of Africa are being forced to move to Europe, leading to the worst crisis the European Union has had to confront.

See: ‘More people die of drought than all other calamities put together’

Ibrahim Thiaw, current head of UNCCD, is from Mauritania and knows the danger only too well. The Sahel, a vast area bordering south of the Sahara Desert, is more prone to land degradation than any other part of the world. It is also the area where the UNCCD has concentrated its work since it was set up as one of the three conventions following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The others are on climate change and biodiversity.

UNCCD COPs are less contentious than the ones on biodiversity, and definitely the ones on climate change. Still, there have been murmurs about the focus on the Sahel. The convention secretariat has led the effort to build a Great Green Wall that will combat the advance of the Sahara Desert.

Some countries, especially in Asia, have pointed out that they are suffering from serious land degradation too. That includes the west and north-west of China and areas such as Bundelkhand, northern Gujarat, Marathwada, Vidarbha and Telangana in India.

“We are fast running out of time to build our resilience to climate change, avoid the loss of biological diversity and valuable ecosystems and achieve all other Sustainable Development Goals,” Thiaw said. “But we can turn around the lives of the over 3.2 billion people all over the world that are negatively impacted by desertification and drought, if there is political will. And we can revitalise ecosystems that are collapsing from a long history of land transformation and, in too many cases, unsustainable land management.”

Asian impetus

With India succeeding China to the COP presidency, experts expect a fillip to the process of combating desertification in Asia. The first week of the COP will be taken up by informal consultations between representatives of 195 countries and the European Union. The second week starts with the High-Level Segment, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to make a “big-ticket announcement”, according to officials in the environment ministry.

“We need to convert degraded land into fertile land,” Javadekar said. “This COP will work towards that through the New Delhi Declaration to be announced at the end of the conference.”

Thousands of experts and NGOs are scheduled to gather for the COP and exchange notes on ways to combat desertification – ranging from watershed restoration to revive streams and rivers to the most appropriate breeds of cattle, goats and sheep for degraded land.

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