Silting, biodiversity loss and social conflicts are threatening Burkina Faso's Lake Bam, threatening the livelihoods of nearly 30,000 people on its water resources amidst a desert landscape. Ollivier Girard, CIFOR

Ibrahim Thiaw on the world’s desertified lands

Messages and memories from the UNCCD leader

According to the U.N. and World Bank, 40 percent of the global population is affected by water scarcity, and by 2030, up to 700 million people could be displaced as a result.

Having spent his youth spent living through a series of droughts and famine, Ibrahim Thiaw is not only a face to these numbers but also on a mission, as Executive Secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), to ensure that even if the statistics are forgotten, the lands and lives they involve are not.

For this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on 17 June, Landscape News spoke with Thiaw on how to make these degraded landscapes – and the people who inhabit them – productive once again, and sustainably so.

Your home country Mauritania has been intensely affected by desertification for decades. How did this affect your own life growing up?

In the 1970s, the Sahel region, including Mauritania, was hit by a severe drought. It was the first large drought in more than 40 or 50 years, and people were not prepared. Ecosystems were not prepared either. It was dramatic. It affected the economy, human populations, animals, wildlife, agriculture. It was a major disaster. Of course it affected my family directly, including my own relatives. It did not affect my schooling, but it affected me as a child. The scars are still visible.

What were some specific effects on your childhood?

The economy of the family went down, and all the plans and the promises we had for the future collapsed. Basically, it forged my professional life. It forced me to think about what it is I should do in my professional life, and here I am.

Mauritania is also an important country for migration. How are you seeing climate change affect migration in Africa?

Climate change affects migration in the sense that landscapes are degraded, ecosystems are degraded, food production is affected. The economy is down because people live off nature, and nature is the GDP of the poor. Therefore when nature is affected while the population is growing, there is a huge demand on the resources and a larger population exploiting the same patches of land. There is no space for everybody, so some people have to migrate.

Migration is not a new phenomenon in the region. People have been migrating back and forth through cities or neighboring countries – seasonal migration. There is still some of this, but at the moment, people migrate to cities to stay, so it creates large cities and suburbs, and it creates opportunities for other people to move further away and to other parts of the world, including the Western world. This affects international relations; it affects economies.

Migration as such is not bad, but irregular and uncontrolled migration is as bad or worse for the countries of departure as for the countries of destination. What happens is the cream of the cream of the population migrates after having been trained. Instead of staying as doctors, nurses, midwives, they flee to other parts of the world, and they don’t exercise their functions and backgrounds. They do other petty work, which is bad for the overall economy of the world.

Due to droughts recurring since the mid-20th century, nearly 75 percent of Mauritania is covered  in desert or semi-desert landscapes. John Spooner, Flickr
Due to droughts recurring since the mid-20th century, nearly 75 percent of Mauritania is covered in desert or semi-desert landscapes. John Spooner, Flickr

How is the UNCCD helping address migration?

The UNCCD is extremely active on the issue of migration because of the links between degradation and migration. When there is nothing left for a young person to do, what else can they do but flee? But the UNCCD has a large program in Africa supporting dozens of countries, called the 3S Initiative (Sustainability, Stability and Security), which is a program targeting young people, creating opportunities to help them stay home rather than take the dangerous roads of irregular migration, or helping those who have not been successful in migrating come back home and be reintegrated. So it’s a wonderful program supported by many countries, spearheaded by Morocco and Senegal.

We do have many other programs including supporting the Great Green Wall in the Sahara, which is also creating opportunities and jobs for young people, women and people who are unfortunately left behind. It is important for us all to take into consideration that when there is no production in rural areas, people have to flee somewhere else, and that situation can be very difficult. It can create civil unrest. These young people might also be implicated in terrorist attacks. With USD 200, it’s a lot of money for them, and they can be diverted to situations where no one wanted them to be.

What are some low-hanging fruits in terms of solutions for combating desertification and drought? What are some solutions that will take more long-term vision and investment?

Ecosystem restoration and land reclamation is low-tech, easy to do and not very expensive but labor-intensive and therefore creates jobs for young people. Restoring land also brings back the productive land, so people can continue feeding themselves and their families. But high-tech is also now sort of a low-hanging fruit. You hear about 5G coming in the telecommunications system. Think about artificial intelligence. Think about blockchains. Think about smart grids. And think about using solar and harvesting the sun of these arid lands and transforming it into energy. More than half of the population of Africa has no access to electricity today, and yet they have sun almost day and night. It’s almost a joke to say that; they have energy year-round that they can harness. That energy should be transformed into positive energy rather than negative energy that destroys food. That is a low-hanging fruit from the high-tech end.

Unless you are able to conserve food, and until people reduce the amount of food they waste after production due to lack of conservation and energy, you will not solve the issue of land degradation, because the population keeps growing while resources are shrinking. So you have to increase productivity on the same area of land rather than expanding the agriculture into other areas and creating more artificial desertification. So it’s both low-tech and high-tech, and in the middle there are also multiple solutions that can be deployed.

UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw. UN Environment
UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw. UN Environment

The Global Landscape Forum’s theme this year is ‘rights.’ What role do rights play in combating desertification and drought?

I’m so glad that you are raising this issue of rights. At the UNCCD’s Conference of the Parties to be held in New Delhi in September, we are to have rights as an issue to be discussed by our parties, because land rights are essential. Think about all those women who are producing but have no access to land. They don’t own the land, so they are extremely vulnerable and can be kicked out at any time by land owners. If you don’t own the land, you have no access to credit, have no access to finance, and therefore are extremely vulnerable to climate and to extreme events.

Land rights also make sure that small farmers own their land, and there is no land and water grabbing. People come to grab water more than land because they have land where they live, but what may be lacking there is water, or productive land.

Land tenure is extremely important and equally important for investors. If you are thinking about restoring 2 billion hectares in the world, to create the balance we need in the world, these investments will have to be done by private companies that would normally exploit the land for a longer period of time. Who is going to invest in someone else’s land if there is no land security, if there is no concession, if there are no guarantees that these investments will yield and be there for a long period of time?

Land rights are also a very good way of reducing tensions and conflicts between users of land because competition for access to land and water is growing due to population growth and reduction of resources. So the likelihood of seeing more and more conflicts is extremely high. Without clear regulation and a strong state, you will see more conflicts in areas where there’s scarcity of resources and in areas where there is abundance of resources. You have both cases. You need strong states, you need very powerful legislation, and you need implementation or enforcement of such regulation.

Is the UNCCD working on water diplomacy?

The UNCCD is not directly doing water diplomacy in the sense of the blue diplomacy that is done by others. When you think about ecosystem restoration, water is part of the ecosystem, and managing transboundary areas that are usually the areas of potential conflicts is part of what we do. The Great Green Wall that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea is potentially the largest man-made action on Earth and is also about water. You are crossing large rivers, including the Niger River, Senegal River, Lake Chad, going all the way to eastern Africa. So it is important to consider water as part of the solution.

Pastoralist women migrate through the arid land of Burkina Faso. Daniel Tiveau, CIFOR
Pastoralist women migrate through the arid land of Burkina Faso. Daniel Tiveau, CIFOR

With the U.N. Decade for Deserts coming a close in 2020, what were some of its successes? And how will the U.N. continue to build upon what it accomplished through the new U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration?

I remember as young professional when the UNCCD was being negotiated, it was very difficult to convince the world that desertification was a global phenomenon. It was very difficult to convince the world that drought was a global phenomenon, even though it might have local implications. I think no one is doubting that anymore. The awareness has been raised dramatically.

What is also important to say is that in the framework of the SDGs, there is a very specific goal on land, Goal 15, and Target 3 is on land degradation neutrality. That’s a big win in the world, to say that the entire international community has understood that it is important to take neutrality and the balance in managing land.

Thirdly, I would say the interconnections in managing climate change, land and biodiversity are now extremely clear to everybody. Wherever you have healthy land, you have a carbon sink. Wherever you destroy land, destroy ecosystems, you are emitting carbon and are part of the problem. So which one is your cup that you want to be in?

This brings me to the ecosystem restoration decade, which is wonderful news. The world has an opportunity to unite, to come together, to bring all the three agendas of the Rio Conventions, from biodiversity to land degradation to climate convention, to reduce degradation. You have to stop the bleeding first and then heal the wounds by reclaiming the land that has been degrading and bring that land back to life.

Now put a human face on that ecosystem restoration. What does it mean? It means you are securing millions of women’s livelihoods, millions of young people’s livelihoods. You are reducing conflict all over the world because you are creating more resilience for these people. It means you are reducing risks of health degradation, because when the land is degraded, you have sand and dust storms that are amplifying dust-borne diseases. Where you have erosion, you are destroying the quality of the water. When you say ecosystem restoration, you are creating opportunities for green jobs. So you put a human face to the word conservation or ecosystem restoration or the decade, and you see that it is nothing else than sustainable development, livelihoods, improving human wellbeing and building the future we are all aspiring to for our own children and our own countries.

In the 40 years of your career, what changes have you seen that give you hope?

When I see these teenagers demonstrating in the street, saying “save our planet!” they are talking to me. They are talking probably to you as well, to all of us, because we are part of this humanity that has been part of the problem. Our greed has been part of the problem. So our children and our grandchildren are telling us that you have not taken enough responsibility, and now we know from science, from evidence that the conditions are changing, and we want to live in this new world.

At the beginning of my career, those who were caring about the environment were considered illusioned. In today’s world, it’s our children who educate us about how we should behave, who tell us we should not use too much water to brush our teeth, who tell us we should not throw food away. So it is very encouraging to me to see that this new generation has taken conscience. And we have just seen the results of the European elections, and the Green parties are going up. We are not in politics here – what we are talking about is these young people who have expressed themselves publicly saying, “We want you politicians to take care. We want you to understand that we are taking responsibility, and we want our votes given to those who are expressing their concern about the planet and want to work together.”



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