Without healthy land and soil, society is unable to produce the food needed to sustain growing populations. Globally, desertification affects about 70% of dry lands and 73% of Africa’s agricultural land is degraded.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and other reports, about 91% of South Africa is dry land, making it susceptible to desertification, land degradation and the effects of drought.
The effects of desertification, land degradation and drought impede on efforts aimed at poverty eradication, safeguarding food security, enhancing water quality and quantity, resilience and adaptation to the climate crisis.
As we observe this year’s Desertification and Drought Day, a UN observance day held on June 17, the focus is on changing public attitudes which lead to the increase in desertification and land degradation. All this affects the health and productivity of available arable land.
Under the theme Food. Feed. Fibre, the emphasis is on the need for lifestyle changes and the reduction of the impact on our land and soil by people. We should do this if we are to have enough healthy land to provide food, animal feed and fibre for clothing.
The recently published SA Environment Outlook for last year reminds us that healthy land and soil are essential to the growth of good quality crops and other plants. By polluting the soil with, for example, heavy metals, solvents, petroleum hydrocarbons, pesticides and herbicides, it becomes wastelands affecting food and water security for humans and animals.
When plants can no longer grow properly, the soil becomes vulnerable to wind and water erosion, causing pollution and negatively affect livelihoods.
The Outlook findings are that in the human food chain, loss of biodiversity affects health and socio-economic development, with implications for well-being and productivity.
It is estimated that more than a million species are on the verge of extinction, threatening global food and water security, largely due to habitat loss and land degradation.
Unstainable land management is on the rise and is impacting about 3.2 billion people all over the world. About 700 million people will migrate by 2050 due to the impact of land degradation, climate change and biodiversity loss.
Micronutrient malnutrition affects as many as 2 billion people worldwide. It is typically caused by a lack of access to food of sufficient variety and quality. Nearly half the world’s plant-based calories are provided by just three crops – rice, wheat and maize.
Land degradation, which includes desertification, causes changes in the soil or vegetation, which leads to a persistent decline, or loss, of ecosystem services essential to sustaining life.
This is the result of a set of key processes, which are active in arid and semi-arid environments, where water is the main limiting factor of land use and for ecosystem functions. As the effects of the climate crisis are felt across the country through changes in rainfall patterns and the rise in temperatures, natural disasters increase, human health, and infrastructure, is affected.
The Outlook proposes sustainable land use planning and management as a means to protect high-quality, fertile agricultural soil from competing interests, thus maintaining land-based ecosystem services such as food production and preventing land from flooding and disaster.
The UN Land Degradation Neutrality target responds to the immediate challenge of how we can sustainably intensify production of food, fuel and fibre to meet future demand without further degradation of our finite land resource base.
The key principle is that people at grassroots level whose everyday decisions and actions affect the condition of land and water resources have to be involved in designing and implementing measures to address desertification, land desertication and drought.
The UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook for last year notes that food production is the largest anthropogenic use of land, using 50% of habitable land. Livestock production uses 77% of agricultural land for feed production, pasture and grazing.
The report states that to adequately feed 10 billion people by 2050 will require an increase of 50% in food production. This while some 33% of global edible food is lost or wasted, of which about 56% occurs in developed countries. It states that securing land rights for local communities can help to turn land assets into development opportunities and secure more sustainable use of land.
The land cover change assessment for South Africa indicates that at a national level there has been a total increase of 3.27% in transformed land specifically associated with urban expansion, mining, cultivation and plantations.
The 2013 land degradation index assessments indicated that most parts of the country experience low to medium degradation, whereas large parts of the Northern Cape, the North West and the Eastern Cape experience high degradation.
Through our various Expanded Public Works Programmes, we have been able to build the much needed infrastructure with an aim of preserving productive land whilst creating some form of resilience against the impacts of climate change.
As a signatory to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, South Africa works collectively with other African countries in advancing programmes and initiatives that combat and mitigate the effects of desertification and drought throughout the continent.
- Sotyu is the Deputy Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries