UN issues desertification warning

Tens of millions of people could be driven from their homes by encroaching deserts, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, a report says.

The study by the United Nations University suggests climate change is making desertification “the greatest environmental challenge of our times”.

If action is not taken, the report warns that some 50 million people could be displaced within the next 10 years.

The study was produced by more than 200 experts from 25 countries.

This report does not pull any punches, says BBC environment reporter Matt McGrath.

One third of the Earth’s population – home to about two billion people – are potential victims of its creeping effect, it says.

“Desertification has emerged as an environmental crisis of global proportions, currently affecting an estimated 100 to 200 million people, and threatening the lives and livelihoods of a much larger number,” the study said.

The overexploitation of land and unsustainable irrigation practices are making matters worse, while climate change is also a major factor degrading the soil, it says.

People displaced by desertification put new strains on natural resources and on other societies nearby and threaten international instability, the study adds.

“There is a chain reaction. It leads to social turmoil,” said Zafaar Adeel, the study’s lead author and head of the UN University’s International Network on Water, Environment and Health.

The largest area affected was probably sub-Saharan Africa, where people are moving to northern Africa or to Europe, while the second area is the former Soviet republics in central Asia, he added.

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