World Environment Day 2024: Stop fertile soil from turning to dust

Wednesday marks World Environment Day, one of the largest international events focused on the environment, coordinated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

On this day, millions of people from governments, businesses, civil society and educational institutions participate annually to raise awareness and take action on environmental issues, aiming to protect the planet’s future.

This year’s theme – “Our Land, Our Future. We are #GenerationRestoration” – stresses the importance of restoring land, combating desertification and enhancing resilience to drought.

A silent crisis

Land degradation, desertification and drought, caused primarily by human activities and climatic variations, are a silent crisis affecting people across the world.

According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, up to 40 percent of the Earth’s land is degraded, impacting around 3.2 billion people globally due to desertification. Moreover, projections suggest that by 2050, over three-quarters of the world’s population will be affected by drought.

An estimated 4.8-5.7 billion people will live in areas that are water-scarce for at least one month each year. Up to 216 million people could be forced to migrate by 2050, largely due to drought in combination with other factors including water scarcity, declining crop productivity, sea-level rise, and overpopulation.

In addition to drought and other climate extremes, typical causes for land to degrade include deforestation, the conversion of grasslands into croplands, and the over-exploitation of water and soil in drylands.

As land becomes less fertile, it is depleted of natural resources and vegetation, becoming unable to support rich biodiversity. That may lead to crop failure, threatening global food security.

A villager holds a tiny maize cob harvested from his wilting maize field, which suffered moisture stress during a long dry spell, Kanyemba Village, Rushinga, Zimbabwe, March 3, 2024. /CFP

A villager holds a tiny maize cob harvested from his wilting maize field, which suffered moisture stress during a long dry spell, Kanyemba Village, Rushinga, Zimbabwe, March 3, 2024. /CFP

Furthermore, when land is degraded, soil carbon can be released into the atmosphere, making land degradation one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Statistics show that restoring degraded land globally could lock away three billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon into the soil every year – offsetting around 10 percent of the world’s current annual energy-related emissions. Meanwhile, actions to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation can provide over one-third of the climate mitigation needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius by 2030.

Biodiversity is on the line, too. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), loss and degradation of habitat threaten around 85 percent of all species on the IUCN Red List.

Restoring the land

The UNEP listed seven ways to address land degradation, including making agriculture sustainable, saving the soil, protecting the pollinators, restoring the freshwater ecosystem, renewing coastal and marine areas, bringing nature back to cities and generating financing for restoration. 

It advocates for sustainable agricultural practices, such as zero-tillage farming, a technique that involves cultivating crops without disturbing the soil through tillage to maintain organic soil cover.

In particular, the UNEP emphasized the critical role of pollinators, especially bees, which are vital to global food production but are suffering significant declines.

According to the UNEP, 71 of the 100 crop varieties that provide 90 percent of the world’s food are pollinated by bees. /CFP

According to the UNEP, 71 of the 100 crop varieties that provide 90 percent of the world’s food are pollinated by bees. /CFP

(Cover image via CFP)