The UN General Assembly has proclaimed an international decade for action on water for sustainable development (2018-2028).
Ecologically-sound water use is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: “#6. Ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”
There have already been two UN-sponsored Water Decades: the first from 1981-1990 and another from 2005-2015. However, drought and the continuing advance of deserts means that real difficulties remain.
UN efforts on drought and desertification began with the Conference on Desertification, held in 1977 in Nairobi. It was convened during a series of catastrophic droughts in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa, and was designed to be the centerpiece of a massive world-wide attack to arrest the spread of deserts or desert-like conditions worldwide. The history of the conference is recalled by James Wallis in his book Land, Men and Sand (New York: Macmillan, 1980)
At the conference, there was a call for the mobilization of human and financial resources to hold and then push back the advancing desert.
There are still real possibilities of famine in West and East Africa on the edges of the desert. Niger and Mali and parts of Senegal and Chad in the Sahel belt are facing the consequences of serious drought as are parts of northern Kenya and Somalia.
The Darfur region of Sudan partakes of the Sahel drought but also faces a war in which conflicts between pastoralists and settled agriculturalists have become politicized. Over 300,000 people have been killed since the start of the war in late 2003. Some two and a half million people have been uprooted. The agricultural infrastructure of homes, barns and well have been deliberately destroyed. It will be difficult and costly to repair this destruction.
The Darfur conflict highlights the need for a broader approach to the armed conflicts in the Sahel region.
What are the causes of the desertification process? The destruction of land that was once productive does not stem from mysterious and remorseless forces of nature but from the action of humans. Desertification is a social phenomenon. Humans are both the despoiler and the victim of the process. Increasingly, populations are eking out a livelihood on a dwindling resource, hemmed in by encroaching plantations and sedentary agriculturalists, by towns and roads.
Desertification is a plague that upsets the traditional balance between people, their habitat, and the socio-economic system by which they live. Because desertification disturbs a region’s natural resource base, it promotes insecurity. Insecurity leads to strife. If allowed to degenerate, strife results in cross-border raiding and military confrontation.
Only with a lessening of insecurity can pastoralists and cultivators living in or near deserts turn their attention to adapting traditional systems of compromise between the two. There can be no reversion to purely traditional systems. For insecurity to abate, a lengthy process of conciliation must begin and forms of conflict resolution strengthened. People must see diversity as a crucial element of ecologically-sound development. Judicious resource management breeds security and an improved quality of life for everyone.
Desertification needs to be seen in a broad way. If we see desertification only as aridity, we may miss areas of impact such as in the humid tropics. We need to consider the special problems of waterlogging, salinity, and alkalinity of irrigation systems that destroy land each year.
René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.