Friday, July 6, 2007

Holding Back the Desert

Just as the Dutch have worked so hard to hold back the sea from the Low Country where they live, many other populations must - today and increasingly in the future - hold back the spreading deserts. Thanks to Alex Steffen at WorldChanging, I was made aware of a policy report from the United Nations University that warns that a third of the earth's population may become victims of desertification. Of course, as with most of the manifestations of climate change, the immediate danger to life and limb is only part of the story. Spreading deserts force people to move, to migrate, to relocate out of desperation. So imagine over 2 billion people in migration across the planet, most of them already living in politically unstable environments.

Desertification could bring about mass migration as people are forced to leave lands that can no longer support them, posing an "imminent threat to international stability", according to the report's authors.
The report predicts that over the next 10 years, 50 million people will be forced into this situation. Perhaps most importantly, the report points out the weak collaboration between nations and the scientific community in creating and executing policies to slow desertification. Planting trees that will hold moisture, anchor soil and sequester carbon dioxide to slow global warming seems to be the most logical and affordable step to take right now, but such programs are slow to catch on and carry through.

Jiang Gaoming, an ecology expert at the Institute of Botany, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the reporter that, "planting trees to fight desertification has been a priority in China, but a lack of coordination between Chinese agencies such as the State Forestry Administration and other ministries, has hindered this approach."

Of course, in the US, this problem begs the question, "Why did we choose to settle tens of millions of people in deserts and semi-arid environments?" Will we ever see Las Vegas ringed by intentionally planted forests? Will a flyover of Los Angeles show us more foliage than backyard swimming pools?

(photo credit: P.Ward/Bruce Coleman, Inc.)

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