If it is not tackled in time, land degradation can trigger conflict
The 14th session of the Conference of Parties (COP14) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification began in New Delhi on Monday. The meeting, which is being attended by 196 countries, will discuss several global challenges, including drought, land tenure, ecosystem restoration, climate change, health and sand and dust storms among others. The COP 14 comes at a critical time for the world. In August, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on climate change and land said the land surface temperature has increased by 1.53 degree C since the pre-industrial period, and called for addressing land degradation to help mitigate climate change because of large reserves of carbon in the soil.
Out of the 196 participating nations, 122 countries, including India, have agreed to become land degradation neutral (LDN) by 2030. But this will not be easy. Nearly 30% of India’s land area has been degraded through deforestation, over-cultivation, soil erosion and depletion of wetlands, says a 2016 study by Space Applications Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The annual economic loss due to degraded land and change in land use in India was valued at Rs 3.17 lakh crore ($46.90 billion) in 2014-15, which was 2.5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014-15, according to a 2018 study done by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), a Delhi-based think tank. The government needs to speed up reclamation as the cost of land degradation will outstrip the cost of reclamation in 2030, the report warned.
But at a time when India needs to take up the anti-desertification drive, there seems to be some doubt about India’s LDN target. On August 27, environment minister Prakash Javadekar quoted a lower LDN target (5 million hectares) when the original target was 30 million hectares. The Indian government must take the warning on desertification seriously because land, as Indian Institute of Science’s N H Ravindranath told Hindustan Times, has synergistic benefits for biodiversity and creating carbon sinks. Additionally, loss of land will lead to reduced agricultural output and spark a water crisis. However, what must worry the government more is the strong link that exists between desertification and the creation of a number of social and economic stressors. Populations that lack resiliency to these stressors — who usually happen to be poor — may choose to migrate, seek other means of production or become dependent on others for subsistence. These responses to a worsening environment, experts warn, can make social-political conflict more likely.