The cost of land degradation

25 September 2013 | Environment

More than a quarter of the usable land in the world has been degraded and the situation is worsening, affecting billions of people. Currently 168 countries are estimated to suffer from land degradation, costing the global economy an estimated US$40 billion a year (N$400 billion). This is according to a study that was just released by the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative launched at the UNCCD COP-11 in Windhoek. The study, titled 'A Global Strategy for Sustainable Land Management', says actions to prevent or reverse land degradation can be financially rewarding while also bringing benefits to the environment and contributing to the alleviation of poverty, especially in rural areas. The study says crops of 2.3 billion tonnes worth US$1.4 trillion (N$14 trillion) could be grown if sustainable land management practices were introduced around the world. This would mean adopting farming and industrial practices that allow soils, water, animals and plants to flourish in the long term and taking steps to restore ecosystems. The report states that land and the benefits derived from it have been taken for granted and undervalued despite warnings of the need for careful land stewardship. "Today the pressure on land has reached such a critical point that serious doubts have been raised about the capacity of land to meet the demands of a human population that is rapidly increasing to nine billion." During the last 20 to 30 years land has been degraded globally, mainly due to land mismanagement, drought-related famines and misperceptions of plentiful food production, low land prices and abundant energy and water resources. Land degradation threatens fertile land throughout the world and the consequences are alarming. It results in food insecurity, pests, reduced availability of clean water, increased vulnerability of affected areas and their populations to climate change, biodiversity loss and presence of invasive species. In addition it is also estimated that 1.5 billion people in all parts of the world are already directly negatively affected by land degradation. Between 10% and 20% of drylands are degraded and 24% of globally usable land on earth is degraded at an estimated economic loss of US$40 billion (N$400) per year. This includes a startling yearly loss of grain worth US$1.2 billion (N$12 billion), according to the report. By 2050 at least 70% to 100% more food would have to be produced from existing land resources in order to feed the current and future generations, it is predicted. If agricultural land productivity remains at the current level, an estimated six million hectares of land, which is roughly the size of Norway, will have to be converted to agricultural production every year until at least 2030 to satisfy the growing demand. According to the study, agricultural investments of over US$30 billion (N$300 billion) per year are needed to feed the growing global population. Globally the human population has reached a stage where cultivated areas can no longer be expanded, except in limited areas of South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, and even then the geographical extent of exploitable land may be over-estimated. Furthermore, land degradation directly affects the most vulnerable human population - the rural poor. More than 1.2 billion people live on fragile lands in developing nations where they depend on the most degraded land for their sustenance and income. According to the lead author of the report, Richard Thomas, there is a serious lack of capacity within developing nations to perform their own research and implement their own solutions to land degradation. ELD also identifies global failures to actually get communities to adopt sustainable land management. The ELD initiative emphasises the importance of engaging local stakeholders in sustainable land management, offering practical applications to ensure adoption of these practices. ELD is also developing a case study database, which has already been made publicly available for independent research, and further contributions are welcome. More detailed reports aimed at the scientific community, governments and the private sector will become available within the next two years. The results from the ELD approach will provide a platform to guide land use and investment and planning decisions that do not result in the further impoverishment of rural farmers or degradation of land. WINDHOEK ELLANIE SMIT

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