India is hosting the 14th Conference of the Parties (CoP14) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The backdrop is a grim one. Annually, some 12 million hectare (ha) of productive land across the world-for perspective, this is 80 times the size of Delhi-is getting degraded. Desertification is one of the most visible manifestations of anthropogenic climate change effects. While it has occurred throughout history, Down to Earth (DTE) points out, its pace in the last few decades has been 30-35 times the historical rate. Desertification is a double whammy-other climate change effects, like prolonged droughts, increasing incidence of downpour, floods and landslides, are making it worse at a time when the demand for all that land provides (food, shelter, fuel, fodder and natural resources) is increasing. There is widespread deforestation, destruction of wetlands, overgrazing, urbanisation, and even, perhaps most importantly, unsustainable agriculture. At least a quarter of the global land has degraded in the last two decades. India mirrors the world's misery-as per an atlas developed by Isro's Space Application Centre in 2018, some 96.40 million ha, or about 30% of the country's total area, is undergoing degradation. Of the 228.3 million ha of drylands in the country, 82.64 ha is undergoing desertification-that translates to roughly a quarter of the country's area. Between 2003-05 and 2011-13, as DTE reports, desertification, and land degradation have increased by 1.16 million ha and 1.87 million ha, respectively-in 21 districts of the 76 mapped, and two sub-basins in Ladakh that the Isro atlas maps, more than 50% of the land is undergoing degradation.
How big is the problem for India? A 2018 Teri report estimates that India's land degradation costs the economy $48.8 billion annually, or nearly 2.5% of the GDP in FY15, and more than 15% of the GVA from agriculture, forestry and fishery. In Maharashtra's Dhule district, vegetation degradation accounts for 54.4% of the land degradation. In Sakri, perhaps the worst-affected area in the district, 20-80 tonnes of top soil per hectare per year (t/ha/year) gets eroded, against a global average of just 2.9 t/ha/year. The drying up of the Himalayan springs-3 million of India's 5 million springs originate in these ranges-is also a major contributor to desertification in the Gangetic plains. Climate change effects, such as rising mercury/extreme dryness, massive and frequent flooding, extreme weather events, among others-thanks to a range of human activity, from deforestation to mindless resource extraction- are to blame.
Prime minister Narendra Modi, at the CoP14, spoke of the need for a global water action agenda to check desertification while setting a national goal of controlling degradation/desertification of 26 million hectares by 2030. Realising this goal will need action on multiple fronts-a sustainability protocol has to be made central to all policy for water extraction, agriculture, mining, and other forms of land use. In Rajasthan,the Central Arid Zone Research Institute has implemented measures that involve the plantation of specific brushwood/grass in a specific pattern, and other vegetation to reduce wind erosion, and stepped up water management efforts in the driest districts. The plantation efforts, CAZRI data shows, has brought down soil loss by 76%. The cost of battling desertification worldwide is estimated at $450 billion annually-the global South may be the worst-hit by desertification now, but in a business-as-usual scenario, land everywhere risks a similar fate. With the UNCCD being a legally binding agreement, the need is to step up negotiations under it.