The stepchild of the Rio Earth Summit may finally get its due
What is common to the Harappans in the Indus Valley, the Sumerians and Babylonians in West Asia, the Mayans in Central America, the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, or even the Norse Settlement in Greenland? All these ancient civilisations fell prey to desertification. It is the process by which land in arid and semi-arid areas first gets degraded by human activities and prolonged drought; then the soil loses productivity; and, eventually, vegetation and forest cover thin out. The past is a warning . Drought and desertification are responsible for 12 million hectares of land lost annually. That is 23 hectares of land every minute. India has 16.7% of world population but only 2.4% of land. Nearly a third of this area has experienced desertification.
In September, India hosted the 14th Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Along with the conventions on climate change and biodiversity, UNCCD was an outcome of the Rio Summit on Environment and Development in 1992. Back then, the conjunctive use of “and” signalled a political division. Rich countries wanted to discuss climate change; poorer nations focused on development. Desertification was impacting agriculture and undermining growth in many parts of the developing world. The links between climate change, desertification and biodiversity have been more clearly established now.
Emerging from CoP14, the New Delhi Declaration promotes “land-based solutions for climate action and biodiversity conservation”. A voluntary target of achieving land degradation neutrality (LDN) by 2030 was also welcomed. LDN is not just about afforestation but ecological revitalisation of degraded landscapes to help communities become more food secure, get access to clean water, and sequester more carbon (up to 3 billion tonnes annually). Initially targeting to restore 21 million hectares by 2030, at CoP14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that this would be raised to 26 million hectares.
Land cannot be restored without better water governance. A changing climate is likely to increase the intensity and frequency of droughts . By impacting land productivity, droughts exacerbate a vicious cycle — continuing overdraft of groundwater to support agriculture; even lesser water available to restore ecosystems; more erosion and desertification.
Changes in agricultural practices will be fundamental to land restoration. Intensive farming alters soil chemistry and reduces fertility. Flood irrigation makes soil more saline. Despite such long-term damage to soil, without alternatives, farmers continue unsustainable farming practices. When land has degraded, they fall victim to forced migration. By 2045, 135 million people could be displaced thanks to desertification.
Agriculture is a function of seeds, soil and water. The green revolution used high-yielding varieties of seeds, intensively applied chemical fertilisers, and massively relied on (ground)water. India now needs a green revolution 2.0, which would restore soil health and increase water conservation, efficiency and productivity. The reintroduction of coarse (more nutritious and climate resilient) grains, such as millets, into our diets could give farmers opportunities to adopt new practices. Agroforestry and natural farming are unlikely to move beyond buzzwords unless there is focus on land restoration, measuring how yields can increase, and linking marginal farmers to markets to boost incomes. Only then incentives would change. Land, climate change and renewables also intertwine. CEEW’s researchers and collaborators have found benefits in collocating solar installations in drylands with a switch to cash crops. Their investigations reveal that water inputs needed to clean solar panels were similar to what was needed for growing aloe vera. Collocating the two would maximise land and water-use efficiency. The water productivity of a grid-connected solar photovoltaic installation exceeds other land uses (over 250-1,500 times growing regular crops in northwest India). When collocated with aloe cultivation, water productivity and economic benefits are 30% higher; with microgrids, returns are 40% higher.
As with climate negotiations, UNCCD has been plagued by unmet demands for financing to control desertification. Despite links to climate change, rich countries oppose allocating money from the Green Climate Fund or the Adaptation Fund. This story is all too familiar. The New Delhi Declaration is titled “Investing in Land and Unlocking Opportunities”. To realise the promise, ecosystem services of restored land must be valued and land titles must be awarded to eligible forest-dwelling and indigenous communities. Opportunities in new crops, sustainable agricultural practices, water efficiency and collocated renewable energy would then create incentives to attract public and private investment. The stepchild of the Rio conventions could finally get its due.