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Poor land use drives degradation up

By Harriet James
Tuesday, June 30th, 2020
Poor land use drives degradation up.
In summary
    • Globally, two billion hectares of previously productive land have been degraded
    • 70 per cent of natural ecosystems will be required for food production by 2030.
    • Africa has the second largest area of degraded rangelands after Asia and accounts for one third of the world’s drylands.
    • 1,287 million hectares in Africa are composed of arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid  lands.

As climate change and demand for land for use in various sectors, desertification is accelerating at high rates, raising concerns about food sustainability.

Harriet James @harriet86jim

United Nation’s statistics shows more than two billion hectares of previously productive land have been degraded and an additional 300m hectares of land will be required for food production by 2030, translating to over 70 per cent of natural ecosystems. Concerns are that by 2050, this could hit 90 per cent. 

Such statistics have driven this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

Under the theme of  Food, Feed, Fibre, the main focus is on the public as the main drivers of change, with the aim of transforming their attitude on desertification and land degradation in their relentless production and consumption and demand due to expanding cities and fuel industry.

“If we keep producing and consuming as usual, we will eat into the planet’s capacity to sustain life until there is nothing left, but scraps. 

We all need to make better choices about what we eat and what we wear to help protect and restore the land,” says  Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

The Centre for International Earth Science Network shows globally, there exists only 0.8 per cent of irrigated lands, 4.1 per cent of degraded rain-fed croplands, 14.6 per cent of degraded rangelands (vegetation), 19.5 per cent drylands with human induced soil degradation, 50 per cent degraded rangelands (soils) and 30.5 per cent non-degraded drylands. 

Globally, Africa has the second largest area of degraded rangelands after Asia and accounts for one third of the world’s drylands, at 1,959 million hectares or 65 per cent of the continent.

One third of this area is hyper-arid deserts (672 million hectares), which is uninhabited, with the exception of sparse tiny oases, while the remaining two thirds or 1,287 million hectares are composed of arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas with a population of about 400 million (two thirds of all Africans).

Reducing degradation

“Mitigation measures in reducing degradation such as protection of land cover through afforestation, reducing soil erosion through building  gabions, practising terracing and crop rotation including agro-forestry would help in reducing soil and vegetation degradation hence less desertification.

Policy makers should provide key strategies of implemention of such policies, which reduce the degradation of lands.

Close monitoring globally, regionally and locally is essential in ensuring the mitigation measures are adhered to,” says Dr Mark Kipkurwa Boitt, Lecturer of Geoinformatics at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

So far, Kenya has experimented quite a bit with converting rangelands to agricultural land, and as such we have several irrigation projects all under varying degrees of success.

However, Dr David Kimiti, Head of Research and Monitoring at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, believes more research needs to be done on potential of land.

When paired with drip irrigation or efficient irrigation strategies, such programmes could be very useful in improving food security in water stressed environment. 

“Not every landscape has the capacity to produce crops just because water has been added on to it. We have to look at soil types, area topography and regular climatic variability,” he explains. 

While the approaches are not new, he says there is still need to see them in use at an impactful scale. 

“I think the breakdown in Agricultural Extension Services from what they were a few decades ago has also played a large role as new techniques, technologies, and crop varieties don’t make it into the mainstream as quickly or as efficiently as they could,” he explains. 

Combating climate change 

Meanwhile, climate change has resulted in the decline of the health and productivity of existing arable land.

This in turn has resulted in deforestation, making it more difficult to mitigate effects of climate change and land degradation. 

“The effects of climate change, which include prolonged droughts and flooding will accelerate unavailability of land thus exacerbating the situation.

So, lifestyle changes should include doing things to combat, mitigate or adapt to climate change.

To protect the environment, we need to adopt major mindset change, which is ‘extract from the environment only what is needed and avoid wasteful consumption’.

The existing land can produce so much if used sustainably,” says Prof Romulus Abila, an ecologist and Professor at Masaai Mara University.

Agriculture, the backbone of the economy and main source of food and livelihood to many Kenyans, has been intensified even in areas that cannot support it.

Therefore, intensive land for crop farming and livestock-keeping leads to desertification.

Prof Abila urges farmers to turn to production of food crops such as legumes, potatoes, which are fast growing and do not consume so much land and to explore genetically modified organism (GMO) options given that they produce more food per given size of land.

There is also need to explore aquatic resources, especially marine resources as they are a major food source. 

“Diversification of food resources, including the adoption of entomorphagy (insect eating), organic farming and diverse methods of fish farming, apiculture (beekeeping) do not consume much land and have high rates of turnover,” he says.

Citizens should also employ climate-smart agriculture in tandem with the available resources and their needs.

“Instead of large herds of livestock, farmers could reduce them to manageable sizes while embracing improved animal breeds.

Also, conservation agriculture, including minimum tillage and agroforestry, is vital.

Diversification of income sources in areas where agriculture is the only source of livelihood is essential as it will reduce the pressure exerted on the land,” says Caroline Kibii an environmental scientist and a consultant at Enviro Wild.

There are a number of projects to combat desertification mapping of degraded land areas, afforestation and agroforestry, and adoption of drought-resilient interventions in various parts of the country. 

“To achieve sustainable solutions, the initiatives should be tailored to suit the social, economic, environmental, and cultural facets of a given community,” Caroline explains.

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