Desertification and Drought Day, 17 juin 2021


Restoring a billion hectares requires concrete actions! 



Mrs Ndeye Fatou MAR
Land Department Coordinator
Sahara and Sahel Observatory


The international community-driven collective will for a return to nature takes a crucial turn in 2021, year of the official launch of the Decade for Ecosystem Restoration by the United Nations. Is this an admission of failure of past actions or a real desire to turn the tide? In any case, we must recognize that we have come to a point of no return.

With this enthusiasm and international momentum, the challenge is to mobilize stakeholders by pushing them to commit and undertake concrete actions for the restoration of at least 1 billion hectares of land.

Land, a key and crucial component for human life, is the core component of this ambition. Yet it underwent pressure from all sides for centuries and lies within the heart of climate change and biodiversity loss.

A first global assessment of IPBES bringing together several experts and released in March 2018 stated that "more than 75% of the land of our planet has considerably degraded, thus threatening the well-being of 3.2 billion people" 1.

Some 135 million people would have to move because of desertification in the decades to come due to food and water shortages 1. Land degradation is one of the main causes of climate change and in turn has its impacts worsened by increasing the vulnerability of ecosystems. In the same report, scientists emphasize that between 2000 and 2009, land degradation lied behind the emission of approximately 4 billion tonnes of CO², which is more than the total EU emissions in one year 2.

All figures are quite impressive and the situations are even more alarming in some parts of the world.  

There is concern that the turning point may come sooner than expected. A recent ‘Nature Climate Change 3 (2021)’ study proved that the earth’s lung, the Amazon rainforest, has lost its biomass and biodiversity and thus its role as a carbon sink. Since 2010, land degradation through increased deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has caused more CO2 emissions than absorption (+18%).Tropical forests that might be the last stand to halt global warming, are in fact losing their “mission” due to degradation and deforestation. This can only indicate inextricable and inseparable links between desertification, climate change and biodiversity that we cannot, in any case, understand apart from one another.

In Africa, about 45% of the land is affected by desertification and communities located in the most fragile areas are often impoverished and ill-fed 4. The economies and sources of income for hundreds of millions of people are now more than threatened. Overexploitation, degradation and unsustainable practices lead to considerable losses, changes in natural habitats and ecosystems, as well as a drastic reduction in ecological services. Land represents 70% of the natural resource base and provides 70% of employment in rural areas 5.  

These phenomena, together with the climate change impacts, further exacerbate food insecurity, vulnerability to floods, reduced opportunities for economic growth, poverty, etc. The devastating consequences for the most disadvantaged populations are really distressing.

The ability to meet the needs of current and future populations thus seems almost compromised. What about actions to combat desertification and promote sustainable management advocated and implemented over the past two decades? Positive results? Yes sure, but are they good enough to turn the tide. There still are several blocking and persisting elements. Desertification and the consequences of drought are still very poorly informed and not monitored the way they should. 

Solutions that are more adapted to different contexts do exist though. Today, more than ever, the world seems to be ready for change and to engage into a new era. Yet, do we have the right technical, technological, human and financial means? Over 10 million hectares around the Sahara need to be restored each year in order to eradicate land degradation 2030.

Restoration needs and opportunities are really huge. For this to happen, it is necessary to fine-tune the evaluation methods in order to promote all actions. Today, the use of Earth Observation data and remote sensing techniques facilitate the development of tools and methodologies to measure, at a bare minimum, the impacts of land degradation and to evaluate sustainable land management practices.

The global effort to combat desertification must be based on a collective action. The involvement of local populations in the land restoration process is not only crucial for their prosperity but also and above all helps contend with the negative impacts to their productivity.

When the earth trembles, we inevitably lose our balance. So now is the time to take action to restore it!

Keywords: Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, desertification, land degradation, climate change, sustainable land management, Great Green Wall


2  World Future Council Foundation, 2017 
4  IPBES, 2018
5  TerrAfrica/FAO/WB 2010