Is India doing enough to battle desertification?

  • Nearly one-third of India’s total land is facing degradation.
  • India has a series of programmes to address the problem and has committed to restoring 21 million hectares by 2030 but experts believe a lot is yet to be done, especially in the context of agriculture, deforestation and urbanisation.
  • In August-September 2019, India is hosting the global conference of countries that are party to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Representatives from nearly 197 countries are expected to participate.

Close to one-third of India’s total land area, 29.32 percent, was undergoing land degradation during 2011-2013 and with rising impacts of climate change, the figure could increase in the coming years. Though India has pledged to achieve the land degradation neutrality by 2030, experts believe the response of authorities across India keeping in mind rapid urbanisation and extreme weather events are not enough to meet the goal. But with India hosting the 14th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 14) that are a signatory to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), later this year (August 29-September 14, 2019), it seems like the issue may get the required urgent attention.

Desertification is explained as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, caused due to various reasons like human activities and erosion, resulting in loss of productive ecosystem and biodiversity.

According to the UNCCD, land degradation neutrality is 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.”

As per a 2016 report by the Indian Space Research Organisation, 96.40 million hectares area (29.32 percent of India’s total area) of India witnessed land degradation during 2011-13. It also revealed that around 23.95 percent of desertification/land degradation, with respect to the total geographical area of the country, was in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana (in descending order) in that period. With respect to the geographical area of the individual states, the report stated that Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat, and Goa showed more than 50 percent of their area being under desertification/land degradation.

Some of the major factors driving desertification in the country, according to the report, are water erosion (soil erosion caused by water), vegetation degradation and wind erosion.

Experts point out that while the country has made efforts to battle desertification, they have not yielded the required results and much more is desired.

“India has a long history of work to revive wastelands but somehow it has not translated into a large amount of wastelands being revived. A target to revive wastelands is a good beginning but we also need to see what has worked and what has not in the last 30-40 years,” Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, told Mongabay-India.

Pointing out that Thar desert is moving eastwards, Bhushan said the authorities need to look at the combination of agriculture, deforestation, mining, and urbanisation to tackle the larger issue of desertification.

A recent report by the CSE had highlighted that India has seen an increase in the level of desertification in 26 of 29 states between 2003-05 and 2011-13.

For instance, in Delhi and its adjoining region, rapid urbanisation at the cost of the last remaining green area and Aravalli hills has been a critical issue.

Gurugram-based forest analyst Chetan Agarwal said, “Aravalli hills act as a natural north-south barrier to desertification.”

“They act like as a windbreak to stop hot air and sands from the Thar desert in the west, for millions of years. Tree cover in the Aravallis further increases their effectiveness as a barrier. deforestation of Aravallis would allow additional movement of sand-laden winds to pass through. The Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) is the largest urban agglomerations in India. Deforestation of Aravallis and degradation of Aravalli land will have a disastrous impact on the provision of ecosystem services and on the quality of life for people living in these areas which we are not acknowledging,” Agarwal told Mongabay-India.

India to host UN conference on desertification this year

Recently, India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said that India will play a leadership role in combating desertification.

While speaking at a programme on June 17, 2019, to mark the World Day to Combat Desertification, Javadekar said the country makes targets for its own sustainable development and not under any global pressure but. As in the past, India will continue to play a leadership role and will lead by example in combating desertification, he said.

He stressed that with about 30 percent of India’s total geographical area being affected by land degradation the country has high stakes and thus stands strongly committed to the UN Convention.

Nearly 30 percent of India’s total land is facing degradation. Photo by Aiwok/Wikimedia Commons.

India is already pursuing a massive afforestation programme. Under The Bonn Challenge, a global effort under which countries have committed to bringing 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030, India had pledged to restore 21 million hectares of land by 2030. It was one of the first countries in Asia to join global commitment. Of the 21 million hectares of land that India pledged to restore, restoration of 13 million hectares of degraded land is to be achieved by 2020 and an additional eight million hectares by 2030. The Bonn challenge was launched in 2011 by the Government of Germany and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

According to an official Indian government report published last year, India has already brought an area of 9.8 million hectares of deforested and degraded land under restoration work since 2011.

Read more: India has brought 9.8 million hectares of degraded land under restoration since 2011

The environment minister had also launched a flagship project on enhancing capacity on Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) and Bonn Challenge in India through a pilot phase of 3.5 years. The project, launched in June 2019 in partnership with IUCN, would be implemented in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Nagaland, and Karnataka.

An official statement by the environment ministry explained that it aims to develop and adopt best practices and monitoring protocols for the Indian states and build capacity within the five pilot states that are part of FLR and Bonn Challenge. “This will be eventually scaled up across the country through subsequent phases of the project,” said an official statement.

“Protecting of land is a continuous process and this needs the involvement of all stakeholders. Land provides a host of ecosystem services like support for agriculture. But this doesn’t mean that land developments won’t take place. It just means that land-related ecosystem services need to be sustained. Because if the land is degraded beyond a point then in the future it won’t provide the ecosystem services and everything else associated with it will get adversely affected,” Vivek Saxena, who is an Indian Forest Services Officer and currently India head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told Mongabay-India.

Javadekar announced that India will be hosting the 14th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 14) to UNCCD from August 19 –September 14, 2019. Adopted in Paris in June 1994, UNCCD drives the global effort to combat desertification and is completing 25 years this year. It is basically a legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainable land management. India became a signatory in 1994 and ratified it in 1996.

As per the official statement, over 5,000 representatives from over 197 countries drawn from national, regional and local governments, science and research communities, the private sector, international and non-governmental organisations are expected to take part in the two-week event.

According to the UNCCD, the global conference is expected to “review the progress made, especially during the last two years, to control and reverse the further loss of productive land from desertification, land degradation, and drought.”

“These are considered growing threats to peace and security in both developed and developing countries due to the widespread loss of livelihoods for communities and even entire regions,” it said.

According to UNCCD, some of the new and relevant issues that are on the radar of the governments include the interaction between climate and land, optimising the mix of food, energy and environment demands on land, the rural-urban link, the negative feedback of land degradation on poverty and human health and the tremendous opportunity sustainable value chains may provide.


Banner image: India has pledged to restore 21 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. Photo by Pawar Pooja/Wikimedia Commons.

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