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The BBC's Clare Lyons
"People are the problem, but they are also the victims"
 real 56k

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt
"More people means more forest cleared for shifting cultivation, and bigger herds of goats and cattle browsing the vegetation"
 real 28k

Sunday, 17 June, 2001, 09:12 GMT 10:12 UK
Action urged to halt desert sands
Saguaro cacti in the Arizona desert, USA, at sunrise
The UN says political will can stop the deserts' advance
The United Nations has warned that urgent political action is required to stop increasing areas of the world turning into desert.

Desertification facts
More than a billion people in 110 countries under threat
Africa: more than half of arable land lost
America and Europe: forest fires devastate land
Asia: sandstorms felt as far as America
In a statement issued to mark the UN's World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, the UN Environment Programme (Unep) says that people are the main cause, but also the victims of the destruction of arable land.

Too much cultivation and too much grazing are also to blame.

The UN's Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that drought and desertification now threaten the livelihood of more than a billion people living in 110 countries worldwide.

The UN, which adopted a convention to combat the problem seven years ago, says that while climate change is a factor, strong political leadership can stop desertification.

In the last year alone, thousands of people in eastern Africa had to abandon their lands when drought rendered farming unsustainable, Mr Annan said.

In the Americas and southern Europe forest fires had devastated millions of hectares of land, while massive sandstorms have ravaged vast areas of north-east Asia.

Bottom priority

The UN agency warns that in Africa - where more than half of the continent's arable land has been lost to desertification - the pace of destruction is quickening.

Parched ground during drought in Namibia
The pace of destruction is quickening in Africa
In west Africa, the land along the southern fringe of the Sahara desert is particularly fragile, and every year the growing population puts more pressure on the environment.

More people means more forest cleared for shifting cultivation, and bigger herds of goats and cattle browsing the vegetation and compacting the soil.

"Twenty years ago, it was very easy to collect fuel wood. Today in a small urban centre, you do not have any more wood. You should go 30, 40, 50, even more, as far as 200 kilometres to collect the first," says Italian environmentalist Giovanni Tibodechi working in Niger on a project fighting desertification.

"A part of the forest is given to the farmer, and they are in charge of the planting, cutting, and transporting of this wood," he says.

"You help the consumers to have wood and to help the producer to conserve and to improve natural forests."

Eventually it may be possible to provide alternative cooking fuels, at a price people in these very poor countries can afford.

Dustbowl

In China, experts warn that deserts are expanding at an alarming rate, eating up vast areas of grassland, and that the whole north-west of China could soon be turned into a dustbowl.

Dust storms have been felt in Korea, Japan and as far away as the United States, where they blocked out the sunlight in downtown Denver.

With pressures from too many people, herds and cultivation, the fragile eco-system of the north China steppe is being worn out.

To halt the desert China will need to move millions of people and livestock off the land - a task made all the more difficult in a country of 1.3 billion people where there is little place else for them to go.

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See also:

24 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Dust storm threat to China's crops
12 Jul 99 | Sci/Tech
Sahara desert born 4,000 years ago
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