Chapter 2: What Has Not Been Done: UNCOD to Now

The only global consideration of the problem took place in the context of UNCOD – the UN Conference on Desertification – and was duly reflected in its 1977 Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. It was not the first word on the problem, and hardly the last, but it does provide a framework in which to analyse what has – and what has not – been done.*

*The Plan contained 28 recommendations, which fall under three headings:

  • Action to halt desertification:
    • governments to set up national machinery to assess and monitor desertification. prepare national plans of action. and start action
    • governments to co-operate on wise management of shared especially through six major transnational projects
    • UN agencies. other inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations to participate in the Plan. and consider its recommendations in their programmes;
  • Priority measures to include:
    • sound land-use planning. improved livestock raising. improved rainfed farming rehabilitation of irrigated lands. environmentally sound management of water resources. protection of existing tree cover. establishment of woodlots. conservation of flora and fauna. and public participation in all measures;
  • Improved development planning to:
    • investigate the economic and political factors connected with desertification

Part of the May 1984 12th Governing Council meeting of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP – which is the UN system’s lead agency in desertification work) was set aside to assess seven years of anti-desertification efforts. Delegates were told by UNE P6 that the number of people threatened by severe desertification had increased from 57 million in 1977 to 135 million (rural population only), or from 80 to 230 million (urban and rural populations combined). They were also told that 6 million hectares of land continued to be irretrievably lost through desertification or degraded to desert-like conditions every year, while the amount of the land reduced to zero economic productivity increased from 20 to 21 million hectares per year.

The most affected areas are the developing countries with tropical drylands and especially those belonging to the group of least developed countries, several of which have suffered from the serious international economic situation and from adverse climatic conditions. The increasing land deterioration caused by desertification has had severe effects on agriculture, and therefore on domestic food supplies, on exports, on the balance of payments and on economic growth.

  • introduce appropriate measures to control population growth
  • improve health services
  • improve scientific capabilities
  • expand awareness of desertification and skills with which to combat it
  • assess the economic impact s of settlements and industries on desertification.

Four main priorities were also listed for the period 1977-84. These were:

  1. the establishment by each government of a national body to assess, monitor and combat desertification, and prepare the national plan
  2. the organization of regional workshops and seminars to discuss and co-ordinate technical activity on the Plan
  3. preparatory work for setting up research development and demonstration centres for rainfed cropping, irrigated cropping, livestock and rangeland management and afforestation/revegetation
  4.  organization of the six transnational projects to help link up action and allow nations to pool their experiences.

Between 1969- 71 and 1980-82, per capita grain production in the eight Sahel countries fell by 13%, from an average of 198 kg to 172 kg. In the 24 African countries FAO regarded as the ‘most seriously affected’ by the droughts of 1983- 84, the situation is considerably worse, with per capita annual production of grain falling from 150 kg in 1970 to only 100 kg in 1984.

Since the start of the 1970s, food imports to the region have increased at an average rate of 6% per year. In l 981, Sub -Sa haran Africa imported more than 12 million tonnes of cereals at a cost of about $2.5 billion. This absorbed more than 27% of total receipts from agricultural, fishery and forestry export. Among the Sahel countries, only Niger did not ask for food aid during 1983- 84. It declared food self­ sufficiency in 1981, and increased cereal production by more than 50% between 1974 and 1982, despite a long term decline of productivity reflected in the fact that the average yield per farmer fell from 500 kg/hectare in 1920 to 350 kg today. The reasons include over-cultivation of marginal land, the bringing into production of yet more marginal land, and government emphasis on the production of cash crops for export.

Concerning the recommendations and priorities of the UNCOD Plan of Action, governments were informed that virtually none of them had been implemented. Only a few governments managed to establish national bodies to co­ ordinate national action against desertification.

UNEP comments: With few exceptions the planning of desertification projects has been allocated to an existing agency rather than to a separate organization. Of the three national agencies designated by 1982, only one is currently effective , and this is a section within a ministry rather than a government-wide co-ordinating body. This inadequate organizational response is reflected in generally poor progress in national assessments of desertification  despite international and regional assistance, and in a general failure to formulate effective national plans to combat desertification.

Only two countries (Sudan and Afghanistan) , of the more than 100 affected by desertification, have prepared National Plans of Action along the lines recommended by UNCO D. Nine others have prepared draft plans.

Few governments of dryland developing countries have explicitly integrated the problem of desertification into their development planning and, more specifically, in their rural development plans, despite the fact that the majority of their population lives in the countryside. Thus , it is not strange that few of them have made significant progress in their fight against desertification.

Of the six major transnational projects which were recommended, no action has ever been taken on four of them. Only two are said by UNEP to have been started in at least some form. The North African Green Belt is now said to be operating in greatly reduced form in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. The other project reported to have been started was the joint management of the sandstone aquifer running under Egypt, the Sudan, Libya and Chad. But in August 1984, Libya unilaterally inaugurated an ‘artificial river’, the source of which is the aquifer itself, to irrigate desert land. Both Egypt and the Sudan have expressed concern that the project will rapidly lower the aquifer’s level.

Only two of the regional research and development centres have been set up: the Sahel Institute in Mali and the Regional Agro-Meteorology and Hydrology Centre in Niger.

The special account to finance the Plan, which UNCOD recommended and which was established in March 1979, amounted to only a miniscule $48,524 in January 1984 with only five countries contributing. The special machinery which the UN General Assembly set up to mobilize funds to tackle desertification has managed to raise, in its six years of existence, only $26 million , one quarter of the minimum target figure.

The study requested by the United Nations General Assembly in 1980 estimated the cost of the programme to stop desertification at $4.5 billion a year for 20 years, i.e. a total of$90 billion in all. Of this, $48 billion or $2.4 billion a year is required in the form of financial assistance to developing countries. In 19 80, the available aid resources for desertification control amounted to $600 million a year, leaving an annual shortfall of $1.8 billion. By comparison, the annual cost of damage from desertification in terms of production loss due to land deterioration is estimated at $26 billion.

Knowledge of the extent of desertification, and of the areas at greatest risk , has hardly improved at all. Very little extra has been spent on improved techniques or land-use planning.

In 1977, the Nairobi Plan of Action appeared thorough and responsible. It was generally considered one of the United Nations’ better attempts to isolate a global issue, attract international attention, and produce a recipe for repair. However, even in 1977, 20 major donors rejected the original UNCOD plans for setting up new mechanisms to finance the Plan of Action; and in retrospect, the donors’ objection to additional funding may have doomed the Plan from the outset.

In 1986, few international experts are surprised that the Plan has not been implemented. Senior FAO officials, for example, comment that in the light of the worsening crisis in Africa, the Plan now appears far too research -oriented. The types of project envisaged in the Plan – many of them long term, most of them requiring either research or at least considerable background studies – are not appealing either to donors (faced by budgetary cutbacks) or to recipient nations (faced with appalling and far more immediate problems).

With hindsight, it is easy to say that hard-pressed national treasuries are unlikely to respond to requests for finance even to prepare a national plan against desertification when heir resources are dwindling and the demands on them increasing.

A retrospective analysis of the Plan of Action reveals that socio-economic aspects, particularly socio-economic constraints, were largely underestimated, while it was over­ optimistic about the financial feasibility of the Plan, particularly the availability of funds.

In 1977, desertification appeared to be a major cause of the African crisis. It was logical, therefore, that attention should be focused on it, and attempts made to combat it. The Plan did maintain that, in the long term, appropriate rural development of affected populations would ease the problem of desertification. But in practice, when anti­ desertification programmes are considered at all today, they still tend to emerge as technical fixes in the form of dune stabilization and tree nursery projects. But this approach is bound to fail, because, as noted, desertification is more a symptom of the lack of development. Therefore solutions should be worked out as an integral component of development plans. The aggregation of isolated sectoral projects which ignore the holistic character of the problem is not enough; it does not amount to an actual plan.

The lack of development, in particular rural development, in so far as it implies socio-economic disintegration, increasingly unequal wealth distribution and increasing poverty, leads to excessive use of the natural environment, adoption of inappropriate technology, lack of environmental management, and eventually, in arid and semi-arid lands, to increasing desertification.

The development approach emphasizes two elements: its holistic character and the human component. The first is of paramount importance in this case. It has been said that the socio-economic natural balance in arid and semi-arid areas is precarious because of poor development in an extremely demanding environment. In this context, every aspect of the inter-relationship between society and nature plays a critical role and if one of them fails then the whole situation is likely to be severely affected.

The second element is unfortunately frequently forgotten: the raison d’etre of the fight against desertification is man. Desertification means the destruction of the natural support of life and development. The ultimate goal of actions against desertification is to preserve and enhance such a natural base for the well-being of people.

That is why the absence of this element is startling. Dregne in his evaluation of the progress of the Plan stated: ‘The most glaring gap is the near-total absence of projects involving the human factor.’

The human element must be examined from two points of view: with human beings as targets of planned actions and as actors in the desertification drama. This second perspective has two supplementary aspects: human beings as part of a socio-economic system which is at the heart of the problem and at the same time human beings who must act to solve the problem. Again Dregne draws attention to this aspect: ‘Unless the socio-economic factors that caused the desertification in the first place are identified and countered, and local people are brought into a decision-making position, combating desertification can only be temporarily, if at all, successful.’

It is not just that social elements have not been taken into account in designing different projects, but that there are no projects dealing with those aspects. Thus even the inadequate sectoral approach appears incomplete. The report of the Executive Director of UNEP indicates that: ‘There has been an almost total absence of projects designed to monitor the human condition in desertified la nds, to evaluate the socio­ economic cost of desertification and to analyse the ecological impacts of population trends.”

But surely a qualitative distinction should be drawn between the human dimension and economic and ecological considerations. In this context it is startling to find that there is no project which focuses on people and which tries to understand the social, cultural and religious factors behind their behaviour in relation to desertification.

Worse still, some projects have attempted to change the lifestyle of dry land people without taking into account their needs and goals. A clear example was the project to settle nomadic people which but for a few exceptions like the NOMADEP project in Ethiopia, finally resulted in increased suffering and environmental deterioration.

Unfortunately, there must be additional negative assessments of the implementation of the Plan of Action. Four­-fifths of the proposed investment projects relating to desertification involve preparatory or supportive action and only one-fifth concentrates on corrective action. But even in this category the emphasis was on infrastructure (road construction, dams or irrigation schemes) or on an increase in dryland production rather than on stopping the deterioration of the natural base. This situation can be illustrated by some recent projects approved by the World Bank, e.g. a $9.4 million project in Gambia to increase groundnut production; a $25.9 million project in Mali for the development of cotton, cereals and groundnuts; a $7.7 million project in Brazil for the development of an irrigation scheme in the North East, etc. While these activities can contribute to the development of the area, if they are not co-ordinated with others they remain isolated efforts which can even make things worse. In short, what is needed is a series of appropriate and mutually reinforcing activities which promote development while at the same time preserving and enhancing its natural base.

Other events also seem to have conspired to make the Plan less effective than it might have been. Its timing could hardly have been worse. By the time UNCOD met, developing countries were already being overtaken by the implications of the international recession – declining funds from donor nations and international agencies, reduced demand and lower prices for agricultural exports, a worsening debt crisis , increasing trade protectionism on the part of developed countries, continued high inflation, harsher loan terms and more self-interested conditions on bilateral aid from donor nations.

The unfortunate occurrence of other events which has made the implementation of the Plan of Action more difficult has been summarized by Mabbutt in the following way:

Climatic conditions in most of the drylands have been unfavourable in the period [since UNCOD] and have accelerated desertification processes whilst hampering combative measures; human and livestock populations have generally continued to increase, but productivity has failed to rise in the face of mounting pressures placed on resources; economic conditions have worsened during major world recession, and terms of trade have become increasingly disadvantageous to Third World countries; investment flows [into anti-desertification projects) have diminished particularly in the face of the initial low returns to be expected from projects; and in several regions warfare and political strife have not only disrupted the continuity of actions needed to combat desertification but have worsened the problem itself through the breakdown of livelihood systems and the displacement of populations in the areas most affected.