The accelerated process of desertification has reached a dimension that is largely surpassing the traditional approach to the problem. Desertification has become a natural and social disaster with many humanitarian aspects that require adequate attention and prompt action. Therefore any meaningful discussion has to go beyond the main technocratic aspects which predominate in past approaches. A deteriorating natural environment and the dire poverty of the population in the areas at risk also reflect the failure of the international community to prevent and control desertification. Recent estimates show that 230 million people are directly threatened by desertification. Altogether, billion hectares of the world’s rainfed cropland and irrigated land are affected and every year a further 21 million hectares are reduced to a state of near or complete uselessness.

Yet, despite the magnitude of the threat, people, their leaders and their organizations have shown little ability or willingness to tackle the problem.

This Report analyses the factors behind their failure. Some involve political shortsightedness and ineptitude, others are the inevitable result of an unfortunate concurrence of international and natural events. These factors include:

  • Failure to see desertification in context and as part of the socio-economic development of arid and semi-arid region s, e. failure to grasp the global character of desertification.
  • Failure of the developing countries affected to explicitly incorporate the problem in their programmes of rural development, and, in general, in the context of development planning.
  • A wrong approach to the problem: Actions have been geared more to the consequences than to the causes, and lately only to alleviate shortages or hardship caused by desertification. Very little action, if any, has been taken to create , and even less to implement, alternative strategies. In other words, the causes of desertification have not been dealt with. No solutions have been provided to avoid deforestation, reduce overgrazing or excessive use of the land, develop irrigation schemes suitable for arid soil, or develop and adopt the right kind of technology for the conditions of arid and semi-arid ecosystems and for local cultural, social and economic patterns.
  • Near or total absence of activities oriented to people or involving their participation: This deficiency is reflected in the total lack of projects for a better understanding of socio­ economic aspects of desertification; the lack of progress in the monitoring of human conditions in desertified lands and of populations at risk; the total absence of efforts to elaborate social indicators of desertification; absolute absence of projects oriented to the creation of economic alternatives in arid lands that can contribute to alleviating the pressure in desertification-prone areas; lack of projects involving community participation and absence of actions for the creation of institutions and conditions for people participation.
  • Lack of action-oriented corrective projects: The large number of projects implemented by the international community embrace complementary, supportive, or pre­paratory activities (monitoring, training, preparation of activities, reports, etc). Very few projects have been designed for concrete corrective action and fewer still have been implemented .
  • Unfavourable climatic conditions – mainly the recurrent drought – that have affected several desertification-prone areas of the world and, in particular, the Sudano-Sahelian countries.
  • The simultaneous arrival of a number of interrelated international setbacks, including a major recession, decreasing commodity prices and increasingly poor terms of trade for developing countries, the debt repayment crisis, and cutbacks in support for, and accordingly aid from, multilateral organisations.
  • Failure by the international community to provide enough financial and technical assistance and the right kind of aid under sufficiently flexible and favourable terms.
  • Poor co-ordination of efforts by the relevant co­ordinating and implementing United Nations bodies and failure by these bodies to raise appropriate funds
  • Counter productive interagency rivalry between many of the regional and international bodies involved in the fight against desertification.

The current renewed drought in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and the drought in Southern and East Africa, have served to highlight the failure of efforts against desertification. However, in the nine years since the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) formulated its Plan of Action to Combat Desertification, swift and efficient action would unquestionably have saved many thousands of lives and avoided considerable human suffering.