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This article was written to celebrate International Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

Soil is the source of life since it nurtures greens that will nourish living beings on a regular basis, whether they are plants for human consumption or grass to feed livestock that will join the food chain system. Soil nurtures the living, particularly humans, and humans manage soils to ensure their basic needs are met.  However, as industrialisation occurred, and the population grew rapidly, the reciprocal relationships became unbalanced. The combination of human actions (overgrazing, desertification, and linear farming practices) and climatic factors (dryland, runoff, excessive rainfall) caused the soil to lose nutrients and even worse, degraded the land, rendering it unusable.

Today marks the international day to combat desertification and drought. Desertification has become a global concern, affecting 36 million square kilometres of land and 500 million people. United Nations Conventions to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) highlighted desertification as a serious challenge for humanity to survive across the globe where desertification has caused land loss and with the current population expansion, it will also limit land productivity to meet consumption needs. Therefore, the urgency in reversing desertification through land rehabilitation and sustainable land use management has become the main agenda for the international community. This also aligned with Sustainable Development Goals #3, Life on land, as desertification threatens soil, and without healthy soil, there can be no prosperous life.

Desertification becomes a pertinent problem, especially with 500 million people that have been affected since the 1980s and the likelihood of 135 million displaced persons by 20451, indicating that we must step up initiatives in combating desertification and droughts. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) as a global advocate for land enacts efforts to avoid, reduce, and reverse desertification through a legally binding convention  signed by 197 member states that commit to restoring land and enacting drought mitigation measures2

The UNCCD also celebrates the symbolic commitment as an international day to raise awareness on the issue and accelerate actions in combating the ongoing global crisis. This year, the UNCCD enshrines women’s role in combating desertification and drought with the high-level panel titled “Her Land, Her Rights: Advancing Gender Equality and Land Restoration Goals.”3 An novel approach to adopting sustainable land management while closing the gender inequality gap.  This main event brought an impactful benefit toward the global to combat climate change and the study of gender and climate. Women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change since they are viewed as land labourers rather than landowners. This high-level panel brings opportunities for women to take the lead in decision-making, take ownership, and empower women in vulnerable areas to enact adequate and sustainable land management.

Another approach to combating desertification and drought is through urban farming and the establishment of green belts. The ongoing flagship project called the Great Green Wall was initiated by African Union where a 7,800 km green vegetation corridor will cover 11 countries from Senegal to Djibouti, an area equivalent to 117,000 km square. Oudagabou City in Burkina Faso took a similar technique, constructing a green wall in 1976, covering 1,032 hectares of land and protecting the soil from wind and water erosion.4 Those initiatives indicate that tackling a complex problem needs a comprehensive solution that involves various stakeholders in committing to expand the green areas, and that also includes the urban areas as combating desertification is not only limited to solutions in affected/vulnerable areas.

The establishment of green spaces bring benefits, such as adaptation against desertification, and countering urban heat islands. The first benefit of how urban green areas for agriculture helped to establish adequate water management is that urban farming generates permeable ground where rainwater is absorbed and channeled for agriculture, rather than ending up as a runoff that erodes the soil. Urban green spaces also aided in lowering the temperatures, increasing airflow, also minimising solar radiation and urban heat island phenomena. This statement is also backed by a study on the effect of spatial green spaces on microclimate in Suzhou Industrial Park, China. The urban green area creates a cold island effect in urban areas where the vegetation gives a cooling and humidifying effect, lowering the temperature5 caused bythe urban heat island. 

Combating desertification and drought also means adapting to the current circumstances, which includes  rehabilitating the degraded land and ensuring food sufficiency for the people that are affected.  Establishing an urban garden for agricultural purposes has been shown to be effective in providing food amidst food desertification. The condition refers to the constraints that prevent people from accessing affordable and nutritious food,6 such as limited access to the market, global food chain disruption caused by COVID-19, and failure in the farming system to maintain food production owing to climatic factors (precipitation and drought). 

Adapting to the current challenge of desertification and drought is the only solution to overcome this universal challenge. Adaptive practices, such as sustainable land use management and developing green spaces help to prevent desertification from worsening. Green spaces could bring significant impact by cooling the environment and absorbing rainwater to minimise runoff. Furthermore, land use should emphasise  inclusivity and sustainability in order to maintain soil health and/or rehabilitate damaged land. These are the acceptable steps to combatting desertification from causing further loss, as well as  great initiatives to commemorate the International Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

Contributor: Nicole Ang 

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