Let us ar­rest de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion

Lesotho Times - - Leader - Ut­loang Ka­jeno

DE­SPITE its in­dis­putable abun­dance of wa­ter, Le­sotho, like the rest of Africa, is un­der­go­ing se­ri­ous de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion par­tic­u­larly in the south­ern dis­tricts and the hin­ter­land where, iron­i­cally, the sources of our ma­jor rivers lie. Thank­fully, Le­sotho is a sig­na­tory to the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion to Com­bat De­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion (UNCCD) that was con­cluded in 1994 and came into force in 1996.

The Wikipedia en­cy­clo­pe­dia de­fines de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion as a type of land degra­da­tion in which a rel­a­tively dry land re­gion be­comes in­creas­ingly and, typ­i­cally los­ing its bod­ies of wa­ter as well as veg­e­ta­tion and wildlife. It is caused by a va­ri­ety of fac­tors such as cli­mate change and other hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties. De­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion is a sig­nif­i­cant global eco­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lem.

Con­sid­er­able con­tro­versy still ex­ists over the proper def­i­ni­tion of “de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion” of which there are many, how­ever, the most widely ac­cepted of th­ese is that of the Prince­ton Univer­sity Dic­tionary which de­fines “de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion” as the process of fer­tile land trans­form­ing into desert typ­i­cally as a re­sult of de­for­esta­tion, drought or im­proper or in­ap­pro­pri­ate agri­cul­ture. In the UNCCD that Le­sotho is a sig­na­tory to, as al­luded to ear­lier, the text of the treaty has neatly de­fined it as land degra­da­tion in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-hu­mid re­gions, re­sult­ing from var­i­ous fac­tors, in­clud­ing cli­mate vari­a­tions and hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties.

In the run-up to the Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties (COP) which will be held in Paris, France, from Novem­ber, 30th to De­cem­ber, 11th, I con­sid­ered it pru­dent to en­deav­our to de­fine what de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion is, its his­tor­i­cal back­ground and how best to ad­dress it, with par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on Le­sotho, which in­ci­den­tally again will ex­pe­ri­ence se­vere drought and wa­ter short­age in the next five or so months, de­spite its abun­dant wa­ter resources. The con­fer­ence will at­tempt to come-up with a le­gally bind­ing and uni­ver­sal agree­ment on cli­mate from all na­tions of the world.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, His Ho­li­ness, Pope Fran­cis, pub­lished an en­cycli­cal called Landato si in­tended, in part, to in­flu­ence the con­fer­ence. The en­cycli­cal calls for ac­tion against hu­man-caused cli­mate change. In ad­di­tion, the In­ter­na­tional Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tions has called for the goal to be “zero car­bon, zero poverty”, and the gen­eral sec­re­tary Sharon Bur­row has re­peated that there are “no jobs on a dead planet”.

The im­por­tance of both the en­cycli­cal and Ms Bur­row’s call­ing can­not be un­der­esti- mated as both the Holy Fa­ther and the in­ter­na­tional trade union­ist com­mand huge fol­low­ing around the globe.

His­tor­i­cally, the world’s most noted deserts have been formed by nat­u­ral pro­cesses in­ter­act­ing over long in­ter­vals of time. Dur­ing most of th­ese times, deserts have grown and shrunk in­de­pen­dent of hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties. Pa­le­odeserts are large sand seas now in­ac­tive be­cause they are sta­bi­lized by veg­e­ta­tion, some ex­tend­ing be­yond the present mar­gins core deserts, such as the Sa­hara, the largest hot desert on the planet.

Since Bi­b­li­cal times, de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion has al­ways played a sig­nif­i­cant role in hu­man his­tory, con­tribut­ing to the col­lapse of sev­eral em­pires, such as Carthage, Greece and the Ro­man Em­pire, as well as caus­ing dis­place­ment of lo­cal pop­u­la­tions. His­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence shows that the se­ri­ous and ex­ten­sive land de­te­ri­o­ra­tion oc­cur­ring sev­eral cen­turies ago are in and re­gions that has three epi­cen­tres, namely, the Mediter­ranean, the Me­sopotamian Val­ley and the loes­si­cal plateau of China, where pop­u­la­tion was dense.

Re­search in­di­cates that dry-lands oc­cupy ap­prox­i­mately 40-41 per­cent of the Earth’s land area, are home to more than two bil­lion peo­ple, slightly above a third of the earth’s seven bil­lion pop­u­la­tion. It has been es­ti­mated that some 10-20 per­cent of dry-lands are al­ready de­graded, the to­tal area af­fected by de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion be­ing be­tween six and 12 mil­lion kilo­me­tres, that is about one to 6 per­cent of the in­hab­i­tants of dry­lands live is de­ser­ti­fied ar­eas, and that a bil­lion peo­ple are un­der threat from fur­ther de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion.

A re­cent re­port by the United Na­tions, Food and Agri­cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO) Agency, in as­sess­ing the sta­tus of the world’s de­for­esta­tion ob­serves: “The world has lost forests the size of South Africa in 25 years due to grow­ing global pop­u­la­tions and in­creased de­mands for food and land. It ob­serves forests give pro­tec­tion against cli­mate change be­cause trees ab­sorb car­bon diox­ide. De­for­esta­tion has been blamed for wors­en­ing land­slides and floods in ar­eas of the world that are prone to th­ese nat­u­ral dis­as­ters”.

At home in Le­sotho, just a few kilo­me­tres out­side Maseru, and else­where around the coun­try­side lush green forests have been all but dec­i­mated due to de­for­esta­tion.

This phe­nom­e­non that oc­curs through­out Le­sotho de­nies our beau­ti­ful coun­try­side its nat­u­ral pris­tine beauty and en­vi­ron­men­tal value. It deeply pains me when­ever I see how our coun­try’s pris­tine beauty has de­graded con­sid­er­ably over the years. It is an uned­i­fy­ing sight in­deed.

Causes of de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion in Le­sotho are not unique to our beloved coun­try, how­ever, here are some of the most com­mon. This is driven by a num­ber of fac­tors alone or in com­bi­na­tion, tillage for agri­cul­ture, over graz­ing and de­for­esta­tion for fuel or con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als. Veg­e­ta­tion plays a ma­jor role in de­ter­min­ing the bi­o­log­i­cal com­po­si­tion of the soil.

Stud­ies have shown that, in many en­vi­ron­ments, the rate of ero­sion and runoff de­creases ex­po­nen­tially with in­creased veg­e­ta­tion cover. Un­pro­tected, dry soil sur­faces blow away with the wind or are washed away by flash floods, leav­ing fer­tile lower soil lay­ers that bake in the sun and be­come an un­pro­duc­tive hard­pan. Poverty also plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion in Le­sotho in that a large per­cent­age of the peo­ple of Le­sotho live in dry­lands where they also suf­fer poor eco­nomic and so­cial con­di­tions.

This sit­u­a­tion is ex­ac­er­bated by land degra­da­tion be­cause of the re­duc­tion in pro­duc­tiv­ity, the pre­car­i­ous­ness of liv­ing con­di­tions and the dif­fi­culty of ac­cess to resources and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

A down­ward spiral in Le­sotho, like the other least de­vel­oped coun­tries, is cre­ated by over-graz­ing, land ex­haus­tion and over-draft­ing of ground­wa­ter in many of the marginally pro­duc­tive re­gions of the coun­try due to over­pop­u­la­tion pres­sures to ex­ploit mar­ginal dry­lands for farm­ing.

There is also the added dis­ad­van­tage of lack of po­lit­i­cal will that in­evitably leads to de­ci­sion-mak­ers who are un­der­stand­ably averse to in­vest in arid ar­eas with law eco­nomic po­ten­tial. This ab­sence of in­vest­ment con­trib­utes to the marginal­iza­tion of th­ese ar­eas. When un­favourable agro-cli­mate con­di­tions are com­bined with an ab­sence of in­fras­truc­ture and ac­cess to mar­kets, as well as poorly adapted pro­duc­tion tech­niques and an un­der­fed and un­e­d­u­cated pop­u­la­tion, most such ar­eas are ex­cluded from de­vel­op­ment.

De­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion of­ten causes ru­ral lands to be­come un­able to sup­port the same sized pop­u­la­tions that pre­vi­ously lived there. The end re­sult is mas­sive mi­gra­tions into the ci­ties, ur­ban ar­eas, out of ru­ral ar­eas. Maseru and Ma­put­soe are two cases in point and th­ese large ur­ban cen­tres sim­ply can­not cope with the mas­sive in­flux of thou­sands of new in­hab­i­tants. This again calls for po­lit­i­cal will, lead­er­ship and grass­roots ed­u­ca­tion, which sadly lacks presently. A typ­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the mas­sive ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion are the sprawl­ing mas­sive slums of Maseru and Ma­put­soe, that put se­vere strain on the lim­ited ur­ban fa­cil­i­ties and resources that sadly can­not cope.

Mea­sures that can be ef­fected to mit­i­gate or re­verse the ef­fects of de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion are nu­mer­ous, how­ever they are also, chal­leng­ing to im­ple­ment. One of th­ese is adopt­ing sus­tain­able agri­cul­tural prac­tices that are how­ever, fi­nan­cially ex­pen­sive but at the end of the day are so­cially and en­vi­ron­men­tally ben­e­fi­cial. The other mea­sure is to en­gen­der po­lit­i­cal will on the lead­er­ship as with­out it no re­me­dial mea­sure can bear fruits. In ad­di­tion, there needs to be sub­stan­tial fund­ing to sup­port land recla­ma­tion and anti-de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams.

As de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion is rec­og­nized as a ma­jor threat to bio­di­ver­sity some coun­tries have de­vel­oped Bio­di­ver­sity Ac­tion Plans to counter its ef­fects, par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to the pro­tec­tion of en­dan­gered flora and fauna in the af­fected ar­eas of Le­sotho.

Re­for­esta­tion can also re­verse de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion as it is very ef­fec­tive in treat­ing the symp­toms. En­vi­ron­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions can work at ed­u­cat­ing the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion about the dan­gers of de­for­esta­tion and em­ploy them to grow seedlings which can then be trans­ferred to se­verely de­for­ested ar­eas dur­ing the rainy sea­sons.

This can be done by fix­at­ing the soil through the use of shel­ter belts, wood­lots and wind­breaks. Wind­breaks are made from trees and bushes and are used to re­duce soil ero­sion and evap­o­tran­spi­ra­tion. This method was widely used to de­vel­op­ment agen­cies in the mid­dle of the 1980’s in the Sa­hel area of Africa and can equally be em­ployed in Le­sotho par­tic­u­larly in those semi-arid ar­eas and those ex­pe­ri­enc­ing de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion in the hin­ter­land of the coun­try and the south.

Con­tour trench­ing is an­other ef­fec­tive tech­nique. This in­volves dig­ging trenches in the soil that are par­al­lel to the height lines of the land­scape thus pre­vent­ing wa­ter from flow­ing within the trenches and caus­ing soil ero­sion. Stone walls are placed around the trenches to pre­vent the trenches form clos­ing up again.

An­other tech­nique is to en­rich the soil and re­store its fer­til­ity by plants. Lagu­mi­nous plants that ex­tract ni­tro­gen from the air and fixes it in the soil, and food crops or trees as grains, bar­ley, beans and dates are very im­por­tant. Peo­ple can also use sand fences to con­trol drift­ing of the soil and sand ero­sion.

Yet an­other tech­nique that can be used for re­verse de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion would be to re­store

grass­lands which by their na­ture store car­bon diox­ide from the air into plant ma­te­rial. Graz­ing live­stock, usu­ally not left to wan­der, would eat the grass and would min­i­mize any grass growth while grass left alone would even­tu­ally grow to cover its own grow­ing buds, thus pre­vent­ing them from pho­to­syn­the­siz­ing and killing the plant.

A method pro­posed to re­store grass­lands uses fences with many small pad­locks and mov­ing herds from one pad­dock to an­other af­ter a day or two in or­der to mimic nat­u­ral graz­ers and al­low­ing the grass to grow op­ti­mally.

On the face of it th­ese tech­niques are labour in­ten­sive, need a lot of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and po­lit­i­cal will but in the end they can go a long way in ar­rest­ing the scourge of de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion that looms large over Le­sotho’s frag­ile econ­omy and agri­cul­tural sec­tor.

If not ar­rested holis­ti­cally and ur­gently de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion is likely not in the too dis­tant fu­ture have a huge neg­a­tive im­pact on the econ­omy of Le­sotho.

Fur­ther, Le­sotho is blessed with abun­dant wa­ter resources that can be har­nessed for com­mer­cial, do­mes­tic and ir­ri­ga­tion pur­poses if prop­erly uti­lized. How­ever, let me has­ten to con­clude that lest I be in­ter­preted to be alarmist, Le­sotho is not yet a desert or semidesert but it is edg­ing per­ilously close.

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