Preventing desertification and soil erosion

Woman walks in desert with child in her arms.
The SDC is committed to preserving soil fertility, forest and water resources in countries affected by desertification. ©CGIAR

Desertification and soil erosion cause the land to lose vital elements such as nutrients and minerals. As a result, people lose their means of agricultural production, their source of food and income, and even their entire livelihoods. In a bid to prevent this, the SDC works to promote sustainable land, forest and water management in affected areas.

The SDC's focus

The SDC supports the preservation of soil fertility and water resources through sustainable agriculture and forest management, primarily in arid regions such as the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia. It imparts knowledge, supports research projects and provides assistance with institutional reforms. The SDC's activities to combat desertification and soil erosion include the following:

Protecting pasture land

In Mongolia, one of the countries most affected by desertification, the SDC has been working to protect pasture land since 2004. It promotes pasture user groups (PUGs), groups of herders that jointly manage grazing lands. The local government grants PUGs the rights to use the land. These groups draw up pasture management plans and use the meadows in rotation. PUGs are independent bodies increasingly recognised and supported by local governments. To date, 960 PUGs and 67 marketing cooperatives have been supported by the Green Gold project, involving more than 53,000 herder households (30% of all herder households in the country).

Sustainable forestry

Charcoal is an important fuel in many developing countries. Its production requires large quantities of wood, which can lead to deforestation, soil erosion and, ultimately, desertification. Sustainable forest management and the energy-efficient production of charcoal are measures that can be introduced to prevent desertification.

In Tanzania, the SDC supports a project called Transforming Tanzania's Charcoal Sector, in which residents of eight villages in the district of Kilosa draw up plans to manage the forest and carry them out on a community basis. At the same time, they are taught how to produce charcoal sustainably. As well as protecting the forest and wood resources, this also improves the quality of the charcoal, leading to higher incomes for charcoal producers.

Convention to Combat Desertification

Switzerland, represented by the SDC, has been actively involved in the design and implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The primary objective of the Convention is to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought, particularly in Africa, through effective action at all levels.

WOCAT – Sharing information on sustainable land management

The SDC supports the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT), a global network led by the University of Bern's Centre for Development and Environment. Partners collect, evaluate and document information about sustainable land management (SLM) technologies and approaches, in particular in areas severely affected by desertification and drought. The data is used to facilitate decision-making on land use and to combat erosion, among other purposes.

Since early 2014, WOCAT has been recognised by the UNCCD as the global platform for documenting SLM best practices. WOCAT supports the 197 signatory countries in sharing their land management practices on the platform so that they can learn from each other quickly and easily. The SDC, for example, shares successful practices and valuable know-how on combating desertification, in a quick and cost-effective way.

Background

During desertification, the natural potential of the land deteriorates, meaning that it loses productivity, biological diversity and its ability to regenerate. The UNCCD thus defines desertification as 'land degradation'. The climatic and human factors of overgrazing, overexploitation, deforestation and unsustainable or environmentally-damaging irrigation systems contribute to desertification.

Approximately one third of the world's agricultural land has degraded. Every year, 12 million hectares are lost to desertification, an area three times the size of Switzerland. 2.7 billion people suffer from the ecological, economic and social consequences of desertification and soil erosion. Desertification is often linked to the poverty of the people living in the affected areas. In order to survive, the only option they have is to overexploit the land. Other contributing factors to overexploitation are international market imperatives and a lack of awareness about natural resources in some regions.

Switzerland ratified the UNCCD in 1996. It is the only legally binding document linking environment and development to sustainable land management. The 197 parties to the Convention work to improve the living conditions for people in drylands, to maintain and restore land and soil productivity, and to mitigate the effects of drought.

The UNCCD recommends a bottom-up approach to achieve its objectives, encouraging the participation of local people in combating desertification. The two other UN conventions agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit – the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – are also crucial to the fight against desertification.