24) ICRISAT Combats Desertification and Drought (June 2000)

June 17 is World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Recognizing this, Dr William Dar, ICRISAT Director General, urged the Institute to "take stock of where we stand in this battle against desertification, and rededicate our energies to solving this grave problem".

As Dr Dar told the recent ICAR-ICRISAT Brainstorming session on Desertification in Asia: "The largest degraded area of agricultural land in the world (1475 million ha) is in Asia, and this is also one of the most densely populated regions in the world. The two most populous countries of the world, India and China, figure prominently in the World Atlas of Desertification of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)."

Citing various studies, Dr Dar said, "Resource poor farmers, following unsustainable practices, are overexploiting available land and water resources. In South Asia, the annual loss in productivity due to soil erosion is estimated at 36 million tons of cereal equivalent valued at US $ 5.4 billion; wind erosion accounts for a further US$ 1.8 billion. The annual economic loss due to soil fertility depletion in South Asia is an estimated US $ 600 million for nutrient loss through erosion, and an estimated US $ 1.2 billion from soil fertility depletion according to UNEP's estimates."

Dr K P C Rao, Scientist in ICRISAT's Natural Resources Management Program, observes that "the semi-arid tropics, where ICRISAT works, are particularly vulnerable to desertification." He said, "The gravity of the problem is revealed in the recent Government of India re-classification of Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh, India, as a 'desert-prone area' rather than 'drought-prone area'".

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) defines desertification as "land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities". The UNCCD estimates that seventy percent of the world's drylands (excluding hyper-arid deserts), or some 3,600 million hectares, are degraded.

Desertification directly affects some 250 million people worldwide. But degraded lands have a spillover effect too, for example, downstream flooding, sedimentation in rivers and lakes, and dust storms. In all over 1 billion people are at risk because of desertification.

In the light of these facts, ICRISAT's initiatives in Africa and Asia to help the "slaves of hunger and poverty" (as the Dr Dar recently termed it) take on a new urgency. As ICRISAT Senior Scientist, Dr S P Wani says, "ICRISAT's Desert Margins Program, the long-term experiments in soil-water-nutrient management, and the integrated watershed management projects contribute significantly to finding combating desertification in the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa."

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