14 Jun 2018 Story Ecosystems

Greening a toxic dryland

Reuters

The World Day to Combat Desertification on 17 June is an opportunity to promote awareness that drylands can be improved through careful management.

The Aral Sea in Central Asia started to shrink in the 1960s, when the Soviets diverted water from the two main rivers that flowed into it to feed vast new cotton fields. Today, the Sea is just is 10 per cent of its historic size.

The sandy dryland uncovered by the retreating water has become contaminated with pesticide run-off and triggered dust storms, causing local health problems. But now the Government of Uzbekistan is implementing a plan to green the dried-up seabed with millions of trees.

Their choice: the saxaul tree, a shrub-like species native to the deserts of central Asia, and now the first line of defense against climate change in Uzbekistan.

"One fully grown saxaul tree can fix up to 10 tons of soil around its roots," Orazbay Allanazarov, a forestation specialist told the BBC.

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The trees stop the wind picking up contaminated sand from the dried-up seabed and spreading it through the atmosphere. The plan is to cover the entire former bed with a forest. Forests are the source of 80 per cent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.

The trees are planted in rows 10 metres apart, so that when they mature and release seeds of their own, the gaps between the rows will be populated too. So far, around half a million hectares of the desert have been covered with saxaul trees. But there are still more than three million hectares to be covered. At the current pace, it could take 150 years to grow a forest to cover the entire area.

“We need to speed up the process. But for this we need more money, more foreign investment,” says Allanazarov.

Background: Land under pressure

Land is limited. Only about one third of our planet is land, and it’s coming under pressure from increasingly numerous and wealthy human populations. However, land degradation neutrality is achievable through problem solving, strong community involvement and cooperation at all levels.

Achieving Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) has been defined by the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification as: “A state whereby the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems.”

To date, over 110 countries have engaged with the LDN target setting programme and considerable progress has been made since the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda was adopted in 2015.

 LDN counterbalances the expected loss of productive land with the recovery of degraded areas, and it stresses the importance of effective land use planning. Such planning implies multi-stakeholder engagement, including local, regional and national governance structures.

UN Environment is doing gap analysis studies for rangeland, pastoralism and land degradation (in response to a 2016 UN Environment Assembly Resolution on pastoralism and land degradation), and with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification on soil pollution (in line with a 2017 UN Environment Assembly Resolution).

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The World Day to Combat Desertification is celebrated each year on 17 June. This year’s theme focuses on sustainable land management to regenerate economies, create jobs and revitalize communities. Under the slogan Land has true value – Invest in it, campaigners are calling for all involved – producers, consumers and policy makers – to make a difference by investing in the future of land.

Global observance of the Day will be hosted by the Government of Ecuador, which will be showcasing its nationwide efforts in making sustainable land management the principal tool for the development of the bio-economy.
 

For further information: Abdelkader.Bensada[at]un.org