15 JUNE 2022
United Nations Environment Program (Nairobi)
As Riziki Bwanake walks along the Tana River Delta, the dry, dusty earth crunches beneath her feet. This part of eastern Kenya was once lush, home to a rich expanse of mangroves and an abundance of fish.
But the sheer weight of the human demands on this fragile ecosystem, exacerbated by a devastating drought, has left the delta parched. Bwanake, and others in her community are trying to change that, working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to plant 100,000 native trees. Their goal: stem the tide of desertification and turn the land from brown into green.
“We realized that our communities stand to gain more from healthy landscapes than degraded ones,” said Bwanake, a village elder and founding member of the Kipini Community Forest Association.
These challenges aren’t limited to the Tana River Delta. Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia are currently grappling with some of the worst heat and driest weather since satellite record keeping began.
This is part of a wider trend affecting hundreds of millions of people across the planet. As climate change wreaks havoc on the Earth’s interconnected natural systems, drought and desertification are swiftly becoming the new normal, everywhere from Europe to Africa. A recent report from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification found that the number and duration of droughts has increased by almost a third in the last two decades. The report also said that:
Droughts have claimed the lives of 650,000 people since 1970, mostly in countries that have least contributed to the factors intensifying the effects of drought.
Today, over 2.3 billion people face water stress.
And by 2050, over three-quarters of the world’s population could be affected by drought
Drought has become an existential threat for many smaller communities and experts say its inextricably woven into a triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity and nature loss, and pollution and waste.
Drought is a part of a much broader challenge of land degradation. Up to 40 per cent of the planet’s land is currently degraded. Forests have been cleared, wetlands and peatlands drained, mountains eroded, and farmlands and grasslands over-exploited. Land degradation directly affects half of humanity, with the potential to threaten half of the global gross domestic product (US$44 trillion).
UNEP is a founding partner of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global effort to heal the planet by preventing, halting and reversing this degradation of the ecosystems that underpin life on Earth. By restoring land and productive systems, experts say, humanity can secure the nature-positive, net-zero pathways needed to safeguard a healthy planet.
Facing creeping land degradation, global leaders came together at the recently concluded 15th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. During those talks, countries committed to exploring a global, legally binding framework on drought, improving monitoring and warning systems, developing more effective partnerships and the mobilizing capital to counter desertification. This is all part of a new movement to shift from a reactive, disaster relief-based approach to a more proactive approach on drought.
Whole regions are stepping up, too. The Great Green Wall is an African-led initiative that aims to support improved ecosystem management across the continent. This project includes the establishment of an 8,000km-long barrier of vegetation that’s designed to hold back the Sahara Desert. When it is complete, it will be the largest living structure on this planet.
“Designed to combat land degradation, desertification and drought, the Great Green Wall will also boost food security, improve health, and create thousands of new jobs and income opportunities for the communities living there,” said Adamou Bouhari, Task Manager for the UNEP GEF Biodiversity and Land Degradation Unit. “[It] serves as a compelling example of how the global community can unite to alleviate the impacts of the drought crisis.”
His comments came just ahead of World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. The day is designed to raise awareness about the spectre of droughts, which the United Nations has called one of the greatest threats to development in low-income countries.
As the world slowly starts to emerge from the shadows of COVID-19, investing in land restoration initiatives and innovative nature-based solutions, like the Great Green Wall, can drive growth. A UNEP report found that every dollar invested in restoration can lead to $30 in economic benefits.
Mangroves need a steady supply of freshwater to survive, so managing upstream land important to mangroves, and managing drought proactively, ensure livelihoods at the bottom end of the river. That’s one of the reasons residents of the Tana River Delta in Kenya have taken to replanting mangroves. The trees help the delta retain water, are a habitat for fish, support tourism, and are a source of much-needed timber.
Along with planting 100,000 trees, the project, funded by the Global Environment Facility, aims to create two nurseries with 50,000 trees.
Community elder Riziki hopes the effort will turn the dry riverbed into a garden once again.
“Restoration can secure a sustainable future and these critical landscapes for our children and other future generations,” she said.
Protecting our planet’s precious land just makes sense for everyone: environmentally, economically, socially and politically. UNEP’s engagement with the Great Green Wall builds on decades of UNEP’s support to countries alongside the Global Environment Facility in tackling issues of Land Degradation and integrated ecosystems management. UNEP is working with the Global Environment Facility to further provide countries with the scientific foundations, policy expertise and innovation needed to best conserve, restore and benefit from their natural resources.
For more information about the Enhancing Integrated Natural Resource Management to Arrest and Reverse Current Trends in Biodiversity Loss and Land Degradation for Increased Ecosystem Services in the Tana Delta, Kenya project or UNEP’s wider work in addressing landscape degradation and drought through the Great Green Wall initiative, please contact [email protected] Learn more about our GEF-supported work in land degradation here.