UN marks World Environment Day with focus on preventing desertification

Desert of eastern Chad

5 June 2006 – The United Nations today marked World Environment Day by shining the spotlight on the world’s deserts, from appeals to curb the desertification of dry-lands to a major report on the dramatic impact of climate change to a list of do’s and don’ts for tourists and a children’s painting competition.

From Norway’s most northerly city of Tromsø, way above the Arctic Circle, to the burning heat of Algeria, co-home to the world’s largest desert, UN agencies joined in the observation, from the major sponsoring body, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to the UN refugee Agency and even one of the specialized experts on human rights.

“Desertification is hard to reverse, but it can be prevented,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a call to all government to rise to the challenge. “Protecting and restoring drylands will not only relieve the growing burden on the world’s urban areas; it will contribute to a more peaceful and secure world.

“It will also help to preserve landscapes and cultures that date back to the dawn of civilization and are an essential part of our cultural heritage,” he added.

In a landmark report issued today, UNEP notes the threats and opportunities in the world’s 12 desert regions ranging from the Sahara in North Africa, the planet’s largest, to the Atacama in Chile in South America to the Sonora in the United States to the Kizil Kum in Afghanistan to the Gobi in China and the Great Victoria desert in Australia.

“The world’s deserts are facing dramatic changes as a result of global climate change, high water demands, tourism, and salt contamination of irrigated soils,” the Agency said in a statement summarizing the report - Global Deserts Outlook.

Global and regional instability, leading to more military training grounds, prisons and refugee holding stations, may also be set to modify the desert landscape, the report stresses.

“These intrusions import many people into deserts, generate considerable income and help upgrade infrastructure, but have large environmental footprints particularly with respect to water. In an insecure and competitive world, this kind of investment will continue, even grow,” it says.

“Better management of water supplies will be the key challenge for the future of deserts but could, if successful, be a beacon of hope and good practice for other water-short parts of the globe,” UNEP notes.

“There are many popular and sometimes misplaced views of deserts which this report either confirms or overturns. Far from being barren wastelands, they emerge as biologically, economically and culturally dynamic, while being increasingly subject to the impacts and pressures of the modern world,” UNEP Officer in Charge and Deputy Executive Director Shafqat Kakakhel said.

“They also emerge as places of new economic and livelihood possibilities, underlining yet again that the environment is not a luxury but a key element in the fight against poverty,” he added, citing growing interest in deserts as prime locations for aquaculture and the source of novel drugs, herbal medicines and industrial products derived from the plants and animals adapted to arid areas as well as the huge solar-power potential.

With the Arctic region like to suffer some of the greatest impact from global warming, UNEP chose Tromsø as one of the host sites for the Day.

“The Polar Regions are some of the most hauntingly beautiful places on Earth. They are also nature’s early warning systems where human-induced climate change, the thinning of the ozone layer up to the impacts of persistent chemical pollution continue to be registered first,” Mr. Kakakhel said.

Joining in the observance, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that this year’s theme is Desert and Desertification and the slogan is ‘Don't Desert Drylands!’ But to make the theme more applicable and relevant to most refugee situations, UNHCR has chosen to use the slogan ‘Combat Land Degradation in Refugee-Hosting Areas.’

“World Environment Day is an opportunity to draw attention to the dependence of refugees and the internally displaced on natural resources and to urge everyone to be considerate in the use and protection of these resources," the head of UNHCR's Division of Operational Services, Arnauld Akodjenou, said.

Meanwhile UNEP issued guidelines for the increasing numbers of desert tourists to preserve the environment, from drinking purified, as opposed to mineral water in plastic bottles, taking old batteries back home, and using gas rather than firewood for cooking.

“Tourism based around desert nature can, if sensitively managed, deliver new prospects and perspectives for people in some of the poorest parts of the world,” Mr. Kakakhel said.

Meanwhile in the Algerian capital of Algiers, host of the main observances, sophisticated images of water and life, desert biodiversity and deforestation dominated this year's UNEP International Children’s Painting Competition on the Environment. First prize went to 9-year-old Lau Tsun Ming from China whose painting contained two contrasting scenes of Earth, one desertified, the other keeping natural beauty.

And the Special UN Rapporteur on adverse effects of the illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights, Okechukwu Ibeanu, called on all countries to take “effective and concrete measures” to end impunity for violators dumping toxic wastes “resulting in unmitigated deterioration of the environment, particularly in the developing countries.”

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