10 years later: no plan to halt spreading deserts

A global plan to fight the spread of deserts into precious farm and rangeland is being plowed under by a lack of money and political support. In 1977, 94 nations signed off on a United Nations blueprint for fighting desertification, as the problem is formally known. The goal was to end the problem by the year 2000.

But as UN officials look forward to a 10-year review of the program in June, it is becoming clear that ``we do not seem to have the capacity globally to manage the problem,'' says N"oel Brown, North American representative to the UN Environmental Program. ``Though individual projects show signs of success, there are no national success stories.''

Scientifically, the process is defined as degredation of various types of plant life in regions where rainfall is less than 600 millimeters (about 24 inches) a year, resulting in the spread of deserts.

Dr. Brown notes that the ability to mount a worldwide effort is important not only for safeguarding badly needed food supplies. Other major environmental issues, such as coping with humanity's effect on climate, will increasingly require global cooperation. The UN program to fight desertification is an early test of the world's ability to work together on environmental issues.

At the 1977 meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, delegates pledged that their countries would implement more than two dozen resolutions adopted at the conference. These measures ranged from improving energy supplies and making alternative sources available to assessing water needs, restoring vegetation, and adopting family-planning measures. The estimated cost of the program: $4.5 billion a year, half of which would be earmarked for developing countries.

Today, Brown says, no signatory has put a nationwide plan into operation to fight desertification. He adds that little is being done outside of the African Sahel to implement regionwide aspects of the plan. There Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia are involved in the North African Greenbelt Project, and Egypt and Sudan are working together on an aquifer project. Projects elsewhere on the continent are in the formative stages. But even here, much of the emphasis is on assessment, infrastructure, training, and meetings, with practical reclamation limited to small-scale projects, Brown says.

The net result: desertification is getting worse. The UN estimates that 35 percent of the world's landmass is at risk, threatening the livelihood of 850 million people; and 6 million hectares (2.4 million acres) a year are being lost.

``It's not that it's an impossible situation from a technical point of view,'' says Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute. He points to reforestation projects in China, Haiti, and South Korea where progress is being made.

In retrospect, says UNEP's Brown, the 1977 conference adopted a scientific program ``but not a political process.'' This has shown up graphically as a lack of money. For a plan originally estimated to require $4.5 billion a year, between 1973 and 1984 a total of about $6 billion was committed. Most of that, Brown says, was spent on water supplies, road construction, research, and training.

The lack of political commitment can be traced to several factors, says political scientist Hanna J. Courtner. The UN plan ``is an almost inherent recipe for failure,'' she says, because it sets up ``ambitious agendas with unrealistic goals.''

She adds that the concept of desertification is fuzzy: It embraces a wide range of causes and effects, some with deep cultural roots. It's a long-term problem competing with more immediate concerns, such as feeding a family. It's fairly technical. There is no clearly defined villain.

Part of the challenge, Dr. Courtner says, is to ``reframe the issue, ... breaking it into its discrete elements.'' Worldwatch's Dr. Brown says China's success in some reforestation efforts can be traced to attempts to put the issue ``in terms people can understand.''

More broadly, says UNEP's Brown, to mobilize world opinion, it may be necessary to define the issue in national-security terms: People migrating to find better grazing areas and farmland are more likely to follow their stomachs than political boundaries. If desertification is not stopped or reversed, competition for scarce resources could spark political and military conflict.

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