June 5, 2006

UN warns of conflict risk from growth of deserts

By Hamid Ould Ahmed

ALGIERS (Reuters) - The United Nations used World Environment Day on Monday to warn that land turning to desert is a growing obstacle to ending poverty and a threat to peace.

To mark the day under the slogan "Don't desert drylands!," environmentalists were planting trees to slow erosion, cleaning cities, going on marches and holding special lessons in school.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose largely-desert country was officially hosting the campaign, urged the adoption of a World Charter on Deserts to help achieve a Millennium Goal of halving poverty by 2015.

He said destruction of natural ecosystems and desertification "aggravate conditions of poverty across the world, deepening the crisis."

The United Nations says almost a quarter of the world's land surface is already desert, and the share is growing.

"Across the planet, poverty, unsustainable land management and climate change are turning drylands into deserts, and desertification in turn exacerbates and leads to poverty," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a statement.

"There is also mounting evidence that dryland degradation and competition over increasingly scarce resources can bring communities into conflict."

In Beijing, where 1,000 new vehicles take to the road every day, a quarter of a million people pledged to leave their cars at home to mark the day, state media said.

But in the city of more than 16 million, there was little discernible impact on the smoggy skies.


China warned that its drive for economic growth was in direct conflict with environmental protection, and degradation was worsening despite official efforts to curb pollution.

The United Nations said land degradation causes an estimated loss of $42 billion a year from agricultural production -- without counting human suffering from famine.

Many of the world's crop growing regions are drylands -- which cover 41 percent of the planet's land surface and are home to 2 billion people.

"It is estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of drylands are already degraded," Annan said. "The problem is particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia."

Much of the pressure on land quality comes from a surge in the world's population to 6.5 billion now from about 2.5 billion in 1950.

And many scientists say that one of the effects of global warming linked to increased emissions from the burning of fossil fuels will be to increase the overall amount of desert.

World Environment Day marks the date of the first U.N. environmental summit held in Stockholm in 1972. In the U.N. calendar, 2006 is also the year of deserts and desertification.

Around the world, planting to slow erosion was planned in countries from Algeria to Bhutan. In Mauritius, a group planned to plant vegetation on dunes to protect beaches from erosion.

In Churchill, Australia, activists were collecting computer parts for recycling. A group in southeast Benin were due to march to raise awareness of the risks of cutting down trees.

The World Bank said it was becoming "carbon neutral" in its main offices and all operational travel from headquarters.

This means the "greenhouse gas" emissions from these activities have been offset by investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The European Union stepped up its campaign against climate change with a publicity drive to convince people that small changes in daily routine can help the environment significantly.