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From South Africa to Kenya, Africa is rapidly losing healthy land – but solutions are emerging

By Nita Bhalla and Kim Harrisberg

NAIROBI/DURBAN, April 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From South Africa, where unprecedented flooding this month washed away farmland, to excessive logging in Kenya’s mountain forests, Africa rapidly losing healthy land, putting millions of people at risk of starvation and losing their homes and incomes.

Factors such as climate change, overgrazing, over-cultivation, deforestation and urbanization have left up to 40% of the world’s land degraded – affecting half of humanity, according to a report by the agency United Nations Anti-Desertification Committee on Wednesday.

And the worst is yet to come, including for countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the report warns.

But it’s not too late to halt land degradation and restore drylands to fertile forests, the report adds, citing a plethora of initiatives from Burkina Faso to Malawi that are working.

Here are some facts from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) report and what it means for Africa.

What are the main causes of land degradation?

Land degradation – a persistent decline or loss of soil, water or biodiversity – is caused by a number of factors.

These range from deforestation to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture, as well as climate change, which leads to more frequent and extreme weather.

For example, unprecedented rainfall on the east coast of South Africa this month caused flash floods that washed away crops and triggered sinkholes and mudslides, destroying hundreds of homes, buildings and roads and killing more than 430 people.

In Kenya’s montane forests – known as the country’s “water towers” – logging for timber, charcoal and agricultural expansion have reduced water flows in rivers, limiting irrigation of agricultural land, among other impacts.

What are the impacts of land degradation?

Desert expansion, land degradation and drought affect more than 3 billion people worldwide, mostly poor rural communities.

The loss of healthy land leads to food insecurity, and the loss of forests can make communities more vulnerable to weather-related disasters such as droughts, floods and wildfires.

As land is damaged and crop yields fall, many communities find themselves trapped in a downward spiral of poverty that leads to further land degradation and worsening water scarcity.

About $44 trillion in economic output – more than half of the world’s annual GDP – is at risk from land degradation, the UN report notes.

Land degradation is also a major contributor to climate change, with tropical deforestation alone contributing around 10% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. Land degradation also leads to the release of carbon stored underground.

What could happen to the lands of the planet by 2050?

If current trends continue, by 2050 an additional 16 million square kilometers (6.2 million square miles) of land – the size of South America – will be degraded, the report said.

Nearly 15% of agricultural land, pastures and natural areas could also experience a long-term decline in productivity, with sub-Saharan Africa being the most affected.

Can degraded lands be restored?

Land degradation can be reversed through activities ranging from agroforestry – planting trees amidst crops – to better pasture management, the report says.

If 35% of the world’s land is restored, crop yields could increase by up to 10% by 2050, with the greatest gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

This could help contain rising food prices and feed the growing world population.

Such restoration efforts could also increase soil water-holding capacity, help soils sequester more carbon to limit climate change, and reduce expected biodiversity loss by 11 percent, the report said.

During floods in South Africa, researcher Pardon Muchaonyerwa noticed that sugar cane farms with healthier soil and more ground cover were able to absorb more rain and were less likely to be damaged than farms neighbours.

“I don’t think we have many options for (improving) soil health… Failing to act would put lives at risk in the future,” said Muchaonyerwa, a soil science professor at the University. from KwaZulu-Natal.

Should food production be greener?

Food systems need a major overhaul, from how food, feed and other commodities are produced to the supply chains that connect producers to consumers, the report said.

The cultivation of unique crops on a large scale, the management of factory farms and the destruction of forests and other ecosystems are responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of food and products. basic, he said.

“Modern agriculture has changed the face of the planet more than any other human activity,” Ibrahim Thiaw, director of the Bonn-based UNCCD, said in a statement.

“We need to urgently rethink our global food systems, which are responsible for 80% of deforestation, 70% of freshwater use and (are) the main cause of terrestrial biodiversity loss.”

What works to restore land in Africa?

In Ethiopia, smallholder farmers are practicing crop rotation and diversification, using water-efficient drip irrigation and adopting resistant crop varieties to boost harvests and reduce vulnerability to drought.

Using small dams to slow down and capture heavy rains also helps filter more water into the soils, preventing flooding downstream while increasing the moisture available for agriculture.

In Malawi, intercropping a legume with maize improves soil nutrients, creating an inexpensive natural fertilizer, while helping soils retain more water.

In Burkina Faso, the construction of stone bunds, called bunds, trap rainwater and let it soak into the ground rather than run off, improving food security and reversing desertification.

And in Kenya, drones are being deployed to help farmers better track pests and diseases and avoid excessive use of chemicals – a change that has increased yields by nearly half on some farms.

Related stories:

As Kenyans farm in forests, incomes rise and deforestation declines

South Africa floods a ‘teachable moment’ for climate adaptation

‘We have a story’: saving Kenya’s last sacred forests

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and Kim Harrisberg. Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http: //news.trust.org)

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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