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FAO work helps drive action agenda at desertification convention meet

Sustainable land, soil and water management will play a growing role in ending and reversing land degradation, and increasing food production, after over 100 countries endorsed many FAO-led initiatives at the 13th conference of the parties to the UN Convention to Combat Drought and Desertification (UNCCD).

At the meeting in Ordos, China – known as COP13 – 113 countries agreed to specify concrete targets to rehabilitate more land, reverse degradation and achieve a land-degradation neutral world – a major target of Sustainable Development Goal 15, which aims to protect, restore and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. 

The new UNCCD 2018-2030 Strategic Framework sets out a route to achieving Land Degradation Neutrality, in so doing restoring the productivity of degraded land, improving the livelihoods of over 1.3 billion people, and reducing the impacts of drought on vulnerable populations. 

FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management, Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT), and the Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture all feature in the outcome documents as ways to accelerate progress towards land degradation neutrality.

“Land degradation is threatening agricultural productivity, which even so must increase by around half again over the next three decades to meet growing demand,” said Eduardo Mansur, head of FAO’s Land and Water Division. “This means we must protect what we have and rehabilitate degraded land, if we want a world free of hunger.”

Preventing further loss

Degradation reduces or removes the ability of land to produce food, provide livelihoods, and offer ecosystem services, such as water filtration, biodiversity conservation and mitigation of climate change. 

According to FAO’s Status of the World’s Soil Resources report, 33 percent of global soils are degraded. Soil is eroding at an estimated 35.9 billion tonnes per year, equivalent to 2.9 Mg per hectare. There are also climate implications, with the degraded lands having released roughly 78 Gt of carbon into the atmosphere, according to 2013 research published in the Carbon Management journal.

As part of its response, FAO supports countries to build comprehensive strategies for integrated landscape management – including land-resource planning, soil and land management, restoration of degraded lands, promotion of sustainable production, and proactive drought responses.

FAO, through the Global Soil Partnership, is promoting sustainable soil management; the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management constitutes a tool to guide it.  For example, soil organic carbon, which has been lost in many areas due to poor soil management, is crucial to land productivity, resistance against erosion, biodiversity conservation and water filtering. Increasing soil organic carbon by improved land management techniques can raise food production by 17.6 megatonnes per year and help maintain productivity in drier conditions. 

The VGGT, meanwhile, promotes secure tenure rights and equitable access to land, fisheries and forest resources as a means of eradicating hunger and poverty, supporting sustainable development and enhancing the environment.

Getting ahead of drought

An estimated 12 million hectares of land is lost to drought and desertification each year. Droughts cost countries between USD 6-8 billion per year. Up to 49,000 farmers have lost their jobs due to recent droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

FAO is accelerating efforts to build a proactive, integrated approach to drought – including through the International Seminar on Drought and Agriculture, which earlier this year united the drought community to review success stories, generate new ideas, and build momentum.

The Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture is also part of the solution. The UNCCD outcome document, in its decision on Policy Advocacy on Drought, recommended the framework “as a knowledge-sharing partnership to help countries develop their drought preparedness plans”.  

Putting it back where it belongs

Land rehabilitation can bring multiple benefits to ensure the provision of ecosystem services for all. The rehabilitation of agricultural and degraded soils can remove up to 51 Gt of carbon from the atmosphere, helping the fight against climate change and preventing further desertification and degradation.

FAO is working with countries to produce a Global Soil Organic Carbon Map. This map can be used to set restoration targets under the UNCCD, increasing the chances of meeting the world’s growing need for food, and helping to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The UNCCD Decisions also reference other FAO-linked processes, such as the Great Green Wall – an African-led project to restore degraded lands across the width of Sub-Saharan Africa – and the Durban Declaration: 2050 vision for forests and forestry.

FAO is delighted to be an important partner to the UNCCD in ensuring that the Earth’s lands meet the world’s nutritional needs,” said Mansur. “At lot of work lies ahead, but we can and will rise to the challenge.