Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world.

2011 High-Level Meeting on Addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication
General Assembly, United Nations, New York, 20 September 2011


Interactive Panel Discussion I

Interactive Panel Discussion I

In the first of the two interactive panel discussions that formed the bulk of the work of the Assembly’s high-level event, Co-Chair Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, President of Nigeria, painted a grave picture of an entire continent threatened by the vagaries of climate change.  Africa, he said, had the sad distinction of both drying up and flooding out, often at the same time and in different regions.  Some 43 per cent of the continent was dryland, and as such, nearly 350 million people relied on natural resources, including rainwater, for subsistence.

At the same time, he continued, drylands bordering deserts might become more arid, and wetlands bordering rainforests might get wetter.  In any case, hundreds of millions of people dependent on agriculture could lose their livelihoods if such trends persisted.  However, there was hope that millions of hectares of land could be reclaimed, he said, noting that Nigeria had adopted an overall framework for protecting the environment, including partnerships to address drought and desertification.

The country was also strengthening national and State institutions while promoting sustainable agricultural practices, he said.  Yet, despite significant efforts, various environmental problems persisted, especially land degradation, desertification and drought.  It was obvious that no nation could adequately mobilize and sustain the enormous resources required to address those challenges, and Nigeria had, therefore, entered into partnerships with non-governmental and international partners.

President Johnson also called attention to the African Union-led Great Green Wall project, conceived by the 11 countries bordering the southern edge of the Sahara, and their international partners, and aimed at limiting desertification of the Sahel zone.  He said it would also comprise a multifaceted international economic and environmental initiative “that goes to the heart of the fight against poverty”, with specific programmes on providing employment opportunities for youth “as a cushion against the ravages of climate change”.

Co-Chair Jean Asselborn, Deputy Prime Minister of Luxembourg, said that, with some 2 billion people worldwide affected to varying degrees by drought and desertification, the international community must work together to come up with lasting solutions, including ways to address poverty eradication and sustainable development.

He called for broad implementation of the core United Nations environmental treaties — the Convention to Combat Desertification, the Convention on Biodiversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — pledging that Luxembourg, one of the first countries to sign the anti-desertification treaty, would uphold its commitments.  He concluded his address with a special plea for all Member States to step up their efforts to tackle the myriad challenges associated with the famine in the Horn of Africa, and to help stave off the consequences of lingering drought in the Sahel.

Namibia’s representative said land degradation, due largely to climate change, cost his country some $60 million in lost productivity each year.  Farmers harvested meagre crops or were forced to abandon their lands entirely, threatening food security throughout the country.  In response, the Government had “joined hands” with civil society groups to form the national Programme to Combat Desertification, he said, adding that Namibia had also adopted a “Green Scheme” and a National Climate Policy.  The country was now one of the few implementing an integrated sustainable land-management programme, and had also made a deliberate decision to work with both communal and commercial farmers in fighting land degradation.

He was among the many speakers who cited the dire impact of climate change as one of the main drivers of land degradation.  Mongolia’s representative explained that with average temperatures climbing, some 70 per cent of the vast landlocked nation was affected by desertification.  Scientists believed that the scarcity of vegetation in some of its regions actually quickened the global warming process, he said.  “When I saw this topic, it’s as if you’re talking directly about my country,” he added, describing a landscape at once beautiful and harsh.  It featured breathtaking steppes and bone-dry desert, lush basins alongside areas lashed by devastating snow and sand storms.

He said that, while Mongolia had taken steps to address those challenges, especially the threats to the livelihood of nomadic herders who had suffered devastating livestock losses in recent years, the country would need help to conduct research and implement “big pilot projects” in the affected areas.  Like other developing countries, Mongolia needed enhanced international cooperation and technical assistance, he added.

“So if there are any hidden millions or billions here in the United Nations or any country, please bring them,” he continued.  “We, in the mountains and in the Gobi desert, are waiting to cooperate with you.”  Finally, he said it was past time to establish an intergovernmental panel on drought and desertification, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Everyone was talking so passionately about desertification, he noted, adding: “Passion is good, but action is better.”

Nauru’s representative described the “cruel irony” his people faced, surrounded as they were by oceans “as far as the eye can see” but lacking freshwater to drink or boost agricultural activities.  The island nation relied on what rainwater could be collected from rooftops and a handful of expensive reverse-osmosis systems, he said.  However, rainfall was increasingly unreliable due to changes in climate, which now tended to swing from extremely wet to extreme drought, during which the levels of collected water could dwindle perilously.

Exacerbating the situation was the saltwater contamination of Nauru’s limited groundwater by the rising seas, he continued.  In addition, land degradation was a long-standing problem as phosphate mining had rendered nearly 80 per cent of the island uninhabitable and largely deprived it of the ability to grow large amounts of food.  Due to its isolation, Nauru already paid several times the global average for certain grains, he said, adding that the Government of Venezuela was supporting his country’s land-rehabilitation programme, which included planning and seeding to renew barren land.  The success of that programme was proof that, when countries mobilized political will and when resources were provided, degraded land could be restored — even in the most extreme cases.

Participating in the interactive discussion were Heads of State and senior Government ministers from Swaziland, Fiji, Nepal, Italy, Lebanon, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Mali, Timor-Leste, Madagascar, Mozambique, Iran and Gabon.