The benefits of action, the costs of inaction
The costs of desertification are difficult to specify in precise terms, but they are believed to be enormous. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Secretariat estimates that 250 million people are adversely affected today, and the livelihoods of one billion in more than 100 countries are at risk if trends continue. They estimate that worldwide, 70 percent of the 5.2 billion hectares of drylands used for agriculture are already degraded to some degree.
Human suffering from desertification takes many forms. As agriculture declines, so do incomes and employment opportunities. Ultimately, health suffers as hunger and malnutrition set in. The prolonged Sahelian drought from 1968 to 1974 is an example the world hopes never to see again. Approximately 200,000 people died from hunger, and millions of their animals perished.
The lucky ones got out before it was too late; but leaving nearly everything behind in a desperate flight only to face a difficult life at the bottom rung of the urban ladder, was just a different form of disaster for many. The UNCCD Secretariat estimates that 135 million people around the world today are at risk of being displaced by desertification.
Such human suffering cannot be quantified in financial terms. Nevertheless, estimates have been made of the economic costs of desertification. The UNCCD Secretariat states that since 1990, the productive equivalent of some six million hectares has been lost annually, which roughly equates to income losses of US$42 billion per year. They calculate that the cost of inaction - of failing to combat desertification - is between one and three percent of the Gross Domestic Product of affected developing countries each year.
The cost of effectively combating desertification would be far less. In the first global effort of its kind, the United Nations Conference on Desertification (Nairobi, 1977) created a Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. In 1980 the cost of the Plan was estimated at US$4.5 billion per annum-roughly one-tenth of the cost of the losses estimated above. Yet international commitments to the Plan were only one-seventh of the amount needed.
Agricultural research can make a major contribution to the fight against desertification, drought and poverty. Research seeks fundamental new ways of doing things, such as farming systems that lift incomes dramatically, conserve soils and biodiversity, and reduce the risk of drought. Recent studies have shown surprisingly high returns on investments in dryland research-for-development. To learn more about these opportunities visit our Themes and success stories web pages.
UNCCD 2004. Frequently asked questions. Last updated 01 June 2004. Bonn, Germany: UNCCD Secretariat. Website URL: http://www.unccd.int/knowledge/faq.php#answer4
UNCCD 2004. Ten years on: UN marks World Day to Combat Desertification. Release date 1 June 2004. Bonn, Germany: UNCCD Secretariat. Website URL: http://www.unccd.int/publicinfo/menu.php
UNCCD 1995. Down to Earth. Bonn, Germany: UNCCD Secretariat. Website URL: http://www.unccd.int/publicinfo/downtoearth/downtoearth-eng.pdf