Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Protect the Planet

Soil is one of the most important resources we have, if not the most important. It sustains all our agricultural and livestock food production, wood for fuel production, filters water so that we can drink it and fish can live in it. We also use it for construction - therefore it sustains our homes and infrastructure.  Despite this, soil is endangered. The UN estimates that nearly a third of the world’s soil is degraded and in sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is closer to two-thirds. 34 of Africa's 54 countries reported over 20% in either the amount of land degraded or the amount of population affected by land degradation. 

In Africa, the issue of land degradation (a decline in land quality caused by human activities) and soil fertility decline is deeply complex with intertwining and cyclical causes. These range from poverty, inadequate farming techniques, poor inherent soil qualities to population pressure, to insecure land tenure and climate change, amongst other factors. If these are issues are not addressed the cycle of poor land management will result in higher barriers to food security, agricultural development for smallholder farmers and wider economic growth for Africa.

In terms of soil degradation, the usual suspects would be the dry land African countries around the Mediterranean and Middle East - but in actuality, degradation (measured in terms of its net primary productivity) here was represented by only relatively small areas in the Maghreb and the Nile delta. In more than seven African countries, half their population was affected by land degradation, and in nine countries over half their land area was affected.

The countries with the largest percentages of their territories affected were; Swaziland (95.22%), Angola (66.2%), Gabon (64.58%), Zambia (60.41%) and the Congo (58.95).

The countries with the highest percentage of their populations affected were; Swaziland (98.77%), Angola (60.74%), Djibouti (59.3%), Congo (54.93%) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (53.49%).

These results show that it is not necessarily high population density that is related to land degradation, but rather what a population does to the land that determines the extent of degradation. Soil nutrient depletion is an important concern directly linked to food insecurity in developing countries due to the intensification of land use for agricultural production.

In fact, it is estimated that nutrient depletion accounts for about 7% of the agricultural share in the average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of sub-Saharan Africa, with national values ranging up to 25%!

In some cases, notably in the East African highlands, the rate of depletion is so high that even drastic measures, such as doubling the application of fertiliser or manure or halving erosion losses, would not be enough to offset nutrient deficits.

Heavily affected countries include; Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya. This could be in part due to the high altitudes, which have been for many centuries favourite settlement areas because of a relatively healthy, mild climate and sufficient rains. Erosion has also certainly been a cause of major nutrient depleting in this area.

In terms of nutrient depletion, other concerning cases include Tanzania, Mozambique and Niger where nutrient depletion accounts for up to 25% of the Agricultural Gross Domestic Product.

One of the most worrying cases today however is Ethiopia. Over one-quarter of the country’s land is degraded, affecting about 20 million people, almost a third of the total population. To make matters worse, according to agriculture for impact, Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of soil nutrient depletion in sub-Saharan Africa. To address this, under Ethiopia’s five year growth and transformation plan, there is a dedicated sustainable land management project that focuses on the conservation of soil and water in arid zones. However, an estimated $8 billion is still required over the next ten years, in particular for irrigation development.

As environmental activist, Vandana Shiva explains:
“History provides ample evidence that civilizations which ignored the health and well-being of the soil, and exploited it without renewing its fertility, disappeared along with the soil… We are forgetting that life grows from soil, not concrete and tarmac… Money might grow from speculative real estate development, but not life… We can avert the collapse of our civilization if, in this year of soil, we collectively and democratically commit ourselves to protecting and rejuvenating the soil and, thus, our future.”

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