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From the BBC this week:

Tens of millions of people could be driven from their homes by encroaching deserts, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, a report says.

That report being from the United Nations University, entitled Overcoming one of the Greatest Environmental Challenges of Our Times: Rethinking Policies to Cope with Desertification, from a conference held in Algiers last December with a wide array of international participation.


Deserts on the March is the title of a classic book by Paul Sears (University of Oklahoma, 1935).  What with the Dust Bowl and all, it was a matter of some concern back in those days, though largely forgotten in the U.S. in the present day.  The dust storms from those days were bad enough that some people died from respiratory distress the storms caused.  (See pic below.)

Here's the link for a PDF of the full 46-page report.  This from the foreword:

Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that desertification has become one of the most pressing global environmental challenges of our time, threatening to reverse the gains in  sustainable development that we have seen emerge in many parts of the world.  It is a process that can inherently destabilize societies by deepening poverty and creating environmental refugees who can often add stress to areas that may not yet be degraded.  The impacts of desertification are exascerbated by political marginalization of the dryland poor, by the slow growth of health and education infrastructure and by the lack of livelihood alternatives to resource depleting agricultural practices.

Think Darfur.  There are those who say the troubles in Darfur are basicly a global warming conflict, with water at the heart of it.  And I recall a news story from late 1992, about U.S. soldiers sent into Somalia (by Bush I) were encountering children who were begging for fresh water.  A sign of the age we live in.

We also have mounting evidence that desertification leads to strong adverse impacts on non-drylands.  The most common and visible are dust storms, typically originating in the Sahara and Gobi deserts and affecting the entire Northern hemisphere.  In addition to dust storms, desertification is directly linked to downstream flooding, impairment of global carbon sequestration capacity, and regional and global climate change.  These impacts on the natural environment are also linked to societal impacts.  For example, some experts estimate that the number of people at risk of displacement due to severe desertification will exceed 50 million over the next ten years.  Indeed, such migration of people is a top-level political issue in many countries...

                   Dust storm from Oklahoma Dust Bowl days:

Those 50 million refugees?  Those are from desertification.  There's already been a small trickle of displaced persons from small Pacific islands due to sea level rise which has eliminated fresh water availability due to salt water intrustion.  But there's hundreds of millions of people who live near sea level, and significant increases could make that 50 million displacement from desertification look like chump change.  (We can think of the New Orleans diaspora as the vanguard of that process.)

Enter Australian paleoclimatologist Tim Flannery, the author of The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, who was on C-SPAN's Book-TV this morning (in rerun) for an hour.  He's a smart guy who's given a lot of thought to where we're at now, including a couple issues he thought were given short shrift by recent international IPCC report.  Hear the whole thing through this link (it's over an hour long, so be warned).

I'm paraphrasing what he said, from memory, heard when I first awoke this morning.  So any errors are mine, not his.

Two neglected issues he talked about were sea level raise and potentially tens (even hundreds) of millions of refugees that could be created by same.  And, perhaps even more importantly (than that!?!), the changes in fresh water availability.  IIRC, he argued that a 10% decrease in precipitation causes about a 60% drop in available fresh water - at least in the case of Australia.  They're currently experiencing a sustained drought Down Under, and the percentage of that country who say global warming is the most important issue of the day is climbing steadily, such that nearly 2/3 of the country now think that.

He predicts we'll be seeing a big change in Australia following next fall's elections.

I've diaried before about methane being released from melting permafrost across the pan-arctic.  But Flannery added something new I didn't know about.  He says methane levels have flattened out, and have not increased for several years.  And, since increased amounts are being released from the north, he says that there's decreased amounts caused by drying in the tropical regions.

FWIW, Flannery has numerous good ideas about what can/must be done.  I'd like to think people in Australia are paying better attention than here.  He insists that just slowing emissions won't do, because the current levels of carbon dioxide are high enough to cause catastrophic change.  (Which is well underway, evidenced by such things as the rapidly vanishing Arctic ice.)

On the plus side - sort of - Flannery says global population growth has slowed down.  This is in part due to AIDS decimating the population of Africa.  He projects leveling off at something like 9 billion (currently global population's about 6.6 billion.

Back to the BBC coverage of the UNU desertification report:

One third of the Earth's population - home to about two billion people - are potential victims of [desertification's] creeping effect, [the report] says.

"Desertification has emerged as an environmental crisis of global proportions, currently affecting an estimated 100 to 200 million people, and threatening the lives and livelihoods of a much larger number," the study said.

The overexploitation of land and unsustainable irrigation practices are making matters worse, while climate change is also a major factor degrading the soil, it says.

Both Flannery and the UNU report highlight reforestation on a large scale as an important element in addressing these related problems.  In 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kenya's Wangari Maathai, for tree planting.  From Science Magazine:

Arrested, beaten, and jailed for her efforts, environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai of Kenya has won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

Maathai, 64, is the first African woman to win the prize, announced last week, and the first to be honored for environmental work. The founder of the Green Belt Movement, which since 1976 has organized local groups to plant an estimated 30 million trees across eastern and southern Africa, Maathai was a longtime opponent of Kenya's former strongman Daniel arap Moi.
Maathai's accomplishment also breaks new ground by recognizing environmental activism as worthy of a prize normally awarded for peacemaking and human-rights advocacy. "Peace depends on our ability to secure our environment," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the Nobel Committee chair.

But BBC points out that tree planting, although necessary, isn't a panacea:

Some countries like China have embarked on tree-planting programmes to stem the advance of deserts.  But according to the author, in some cases the trees being planted needed large amounts of water, putting even more pressure on scarce resources.

Getting weaned from burning fossil fuel - what Flannery calls "past sunlight" - is really needed.  Today, now.  I like all the small reminders of same like the recent New Yorker cover showing the Statue of Liberty with the torch replaced by a CFL (compact fluorescent lightbulb).   See it here.  Defintiely made me smile.

The planet's carbon budget is in at least as bad shape as the US federal budget.  We all need to do our bit.  I'll be back to comment after I put the laundry on the clothesline.

Originally posted to Land of Enchantment on Sat Jun 30, 2007 at 03:41 PM PDT.


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