The United Nations held an all-day event today as a global call to action to restore the world’s lands, as overuse and the climate crisis have already left over 2 billion people without ready access to drinking water, and ecosystems on every continent on their way to ecological destruction.
Deserts like this in Namibia are becoming far more common on every continent. Virtually 100% of the desertification of the planet is now caused by human beings. Photo: Image by Ton W from Pixabay.
The occasion was the UN’s annual observation of The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.
“Nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s ice-free land has been altered by humans to meet an ever-growing demand for food, raw materials, highways and home,” the United Nations said in a statement issued yesterday in connection with the day’s activities. This, combined with the high heat and increasing incidence of extended periods of close to zero rainfall in multiple regions because of the climate crisis, has pushed our world’s ecosystems almost past the point of no return.
Virtually all of that has happened either directly or indirectly at the hands of human beings, who have made the phenomenon of drought now an ever-present reality in places which never expected it.
As examples, in places such India, the Philippines, and Australia, water exploitation and overuse has systematically undermined the previous plentiful aquifers which once easily supported irrigation, industry, and drinking water. It has left lands permanently parched with too little fresh water for most. In the United States, the diversion of water supplies for doubly-damaging uses such as fracking, the rapid of big agricultural mega-farms, and global heating having dried out the forests and the reservoirs for many decades, has left the country’s western states with the driest conditions in at least hundreds of years.
Future projected disruptions of equatorial wind patterns are about to make matters even worse. As an example, India’s monsoons, counted on for millennia as a primary means of recycling water from the oceans up and over the country’s enormous land mass, are already impacted jet stream changes tied to heat bubbles rising in the Arctic. Rain is no longer passing in the northern parts of the country as it has in the past. And this is all tied to greenhouse gas emissions increasing and the surging pace of global heating.
This is happening so quickly that an estimated one-third of the planet now consists of dryland ecosystems. That change is threatening our ability to grow crops and to kill off entire biological ecosystems, leaving us and our fellow creatures without enough water to drink in major portions of virtually every continent.
It is also estimated that the spreading drought and our collective abuse of land from overexploitation and the climate crisis is already hurting the well-being of over 3.2 billion people, just less than half the world’s population of 7.8 billion.
On June 17, honored as the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), wanred of the “dramatic impact” of desertification on “our common environmental heritages.”
Calling this a “considerable threat” to communities, sustainable development, and even global peace, Azoulay noted that an estimated 2 billion people on the planet are without safe access to drinking water. That is about 25% of the world’s population as of 2021. By 2050, she estimated that number could grow to 3 billion people. It is a sad reality that number is likely far lower than what will really happen, given the current pace of temperature increases.
She said the abuse of the lands and existing water sources, both directly in overexploitation and through the impacts of the climate crisis could force 135 million to migrate away from those arid spaces by 2030. That migration will likely put increasing pressure on urban areas to handle higher concentrations of people than ever before in the world’s urban areas.
The drought is also causing cross-country conflicts. In Asia’s Mekong Delta region, for example, China is actively manipulating dams along the upper portions of the waterways which flow down into the Mekong River which dominates the lives of multiple countries, to control the availability of fresh water for farmers and people alike. It has already demonstrated it will use that control to secure political concessions from some of those nations. The situation will only get worse as the planet’s droughts lengthen and grow more intense.
The transformation of land on the planet by human hands is also contributing to an explosion of new diseases plaguing the world. The United Nations says such changing land use is “the primary transmission pathway of infectious disease of humans, over 60% of which are zoonotic.”
The United Nations believes nothing less than waging war in defense of nature itself will help reverse the trends we human beings have set in motion. It is calling for collective action and has begun holding global planning events which will look to indigenous populations to help guide the curation and repair of as much of what has been damaged as possible.
While the problem is severe and the charge to do something about it is critical, two powerful forces are likely to prevent drought from spreading far more widely than today.
One is from global heating, which is on a path to grow worse now – thanks to secondary climate effects such as permafrost thawing and ocean methane release – even if the world were suddenly to halt all future fossil fuel emissions tomorrow. The other is from our drive for profits and human dominion over nature and land, from overbuilding to abusive land use practices for agriculture, mining, and unnecessary fossil fuel extraction, along with the growth of meat eating worldwide, which is a severely inefficient use of land to grow food.
In the end, without a mass exercise of political and personal will to change our ways of life, the coming desertification of the planet is a near certainty.