International Year of Desertification

Sunday 19 February 2006

Photo: By Roberto Neumiller, Mauritania

Desertification, in the words of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is one of the world’s most alarming processes of environmental degradation. The issue is often obscured, however, by a common misperception: that it’s a “natural” problem of advancing deserts in faraway developing countries.

In fact, Desertification is about land degradation: the loss of the land’s biological productivity, caused by human-induced factors and climate change. It affects one third of the earth’s surface and over a billion people. Moreover, it has potentially devastating consequences in terms of social and economic costs.

With the adoption in 1994 of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the issue was given proper recognition. Desertification as a global challenge, together with Climate Change and Biodiversity, now enjoys the support of a strong coalition of partners. But public awareness has not kept pace. In relation to the true scope and magnitude of the problem, Desertification still receives too little attention and is little understood by the public at large.

In view of this situation, the twenty-second session of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), recalling the UNCCD, the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Environment Initiative of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), invited the General Assembly of the United Nations to consider declaring an international year of deserts and desertification.

Subsequently, at its 58 th ordinary session, the General Assembly declared 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification (IYDD). In doing so, the General Assembly underlined its deep concern for the exacerbation of desertification, particularly in Africa, and noted its far-reaching implications for the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which must be met by 2015.

At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Convention was singled out as a key instrument for poverty eradication in dryland rural areas.

The IYDD therefore presents a golden opportunity to get the message across strongly and effectively that Desertification is a global problem which we ignore at our peril. It also provides an impulse to strengthen the visibility and importance of the drylands issue on the international environmental agenda, while providing a timely reminder to the international community of the mense challenges that still lie ahead.

It is important to recognize, however, that drylands are also home to some of the most magnificent ecosystems of this world: the deserts. These unique natural habitats with their incredibly diverse fauna have been home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations. They stand like open-air museums, bearing witness to bygone eras. The Year will therefore also celebrate the fragile beauty and unique heritage of the world’s deserts, which deserve protection.

To achieve a common strategy for the celebration of the IYDD, an inter-agency committee has been set up, bringing together the principal institutional partners of the United Nations active in the UNCCD implementation process, including UNEP, UNDP, IFAD, and other relevant UN bodies. All countries and civil society organizations are encouraged to undertake special initiatives to mark the Year and to get involved in any way possible. Through a concerted effort to raise awareness of Desertification, we can help stimulate efforts to fight it and make the International Year count.

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