FE Today Logo

Let's work together to save Earth

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed | June 05, 2024 00:00:00

The focus of this year's World Environment Day (WED), as we see clearly, is on recovering degraded land and restoring the world for future generations. But how did that come about? Before delving deeper into the origin of the 2024 theme, let's look back to WED and how it came to be.

On June 05, 1972, the United Nations held a conference in the Swedish Capital, Stockholm. It was aptly named UN Conference on the Human Environment, and declared June 05 from the subsequent years would be designated as WED. The primary goal was to remind member countries of their responsibility for protecting the environment. A host is selected each year for WED. For 2024, Saudi Arabia took the responsibility of the host country. The host country for 2024 is Saudi Arabia. 1972 also saw the launch of a new agency called United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This is a specialised arm of the UN to deal with environmental challenges.

The first WED was celebrated in 1973 with the motto "Only One Earth". Since then, June 05 is used as a special day to underscore environmental issues, including pollution, climate change, food security, wildlife conservation, sustainable consumption and so on. Needless to say, climate change has become one of the most pressing problems facing humanity today, and many other environmental problems are directly linked to it, including deforestation and increased drought as a result of land loss.

This brings us back to this year's theme, which clearly emphasises the need to reverse land degradation. This is not a new problem, rather it was identified more than 50 years back. However, only recently desertification, which is the transformation of fertile land to an arid, barren wasteland, has been widely acknowledged as a serious danger. According to Senior Programme Management Officer of UNEP Johan Robinson, this process negatively impacts almost half of the population of the world. Hardest hit are the small farmers, rural communities and people at the bottom of the poverty line.

Desertification is directly linked to deforestation and drought. Over the last few decades, we have cut down trees and a vast expanse of forests in the name of building human habitat. Just looking at how Dhaka is now compared to the fifties and sixties will offer an idea of what is being talked about. This has caused intense droughts. UN estimates showed that in the last 24 years, there was a 29% increase in the duration and number of droughts. It has already been predicted that by 2050 more than 5 billion people on Earth will be adversely affected by this.

Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, pointed to the recent heat waves as one of the results of desertification. Bangladesh burning under a scorching sun is not an isolated incident, rather it is part of a bigger change happening worldwide. Even many countries in Europe and America are recording their highest temperature or are forecast to experience that. More storms and floods are coming, cautioned Inger Anderson. If we want to combat that, a comprehensive effort to tackle climate change is required. And that must include bringing back the forests and restoring the land that we destroyed.

Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres also weighs in. He underlines the importance of land for human survival, and the trend of deforestation and desertification accelerating around the globe causing biodiversity decimation. Our activities are creating dead zones in the ecosystem, he said, causing immense damage to our once thriving agriculture and rural communities.

Desertification, climate change, droughts all are part of a vicious cycle. Man made desertification is worsened by extreme weather patterns, especially droughts or heavy rainfall. These can be exacerbated by climate changes, leading to more desertification. The cycle continues to repeat itself, stripping away plants and vegetation. These are critical to process atmospheric carbon dioxide. Therefore, our planet is gradually losing its ability to sequester this gas, which in turn is contributing to global warming.

Africa is probably the continent that suffered the most from land degradation, so much so that the UN General Assembly had to convene a special conference. The conference on desertification worked on a convention titled "The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)". This was drafted in 1994 and signed 02 years later. 2024 actually marked the 30th year of UNCCD.

UNCCD is particularly focused on drylands, vulnerable ecosystems, and affected people. This is, as of now, the only international agreement to connect development and sustainable land management policy. This is legally binding to 197 signatories, who promised to take proper steps and report back the outcome every two years in a conference. This year, as the host country of WED, Saudi Arabia will be the venue of the 16th session of the conference. It will take place in Riyadh on 2nd to 13th December.

The UN also labelled the decade of 2021-2030 as ecosystem restoration. Land recovery is one of the key pillars of the decade. Without restoring arable lands, it is not possible to achieve the lofty target of Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The UN is already working with different stakeholders including academia, governments, and private organisations to develop effective mechanisms to halt desertification and increase resilience of the land.

UNEP identified that it would be possible to recover land with proper strategy. Targeted land restoration has been shown to stop and even reverse desertification. In the words of Ibrahim Thiaw, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, this is a very cheap, practical way that can be implemented by all communities. Inger Andersen pointed out that if we restored just 15% land, this could help to save almost 60% species from extinction.

The African initiative called "The Great Green Wall" is one of the often-touted strategies. This involves UNCCD-supported implementation of land restoration programmes in a wide area. The objective is simple: rejuvenate degraded lands in the Sahara and stop desertification. If successful, this can bring a new lease of life to millions of poor Africans living in drylands.

Other land restoration activities are going on in Tanzania and Kenya, all part of a global effort by UNCCD. Since 2000, they have invested more than 130 million USD for hundreds of projects to promote restoration and sustainable management of lands. Countries have made bold declarations of recovering a billion hectares. If we can do even half of that, it should be a great achievement.

WED is therefore a day to bring our attention to fight deforestation and desertification. More than 150 countries pledged to many types of activities. Governments, NGO as well as educational institutions have chalked out programmes to observe the day. Most activities are centred on recycling workshops, tree planting initiatives, clean-up programmes, awareness campaigns, expert lead seminars, etc. We all can participate by finding out about local events and being there. Or at the very least, we can use this day to plant a few trees and nurture them afterwards, clean our surroundings and learn how to recycle to minimise waste. Be mindful of your water and energy consumption.

WED 2024 offers an opportunity to work together towards a healthier and greener future for the next generation. But make no mistake, it is a long and arduous task, not a single day extravaganza. This special day only serves as a reminder to the enormity of the job ahead. Conserving the environment and protecting land are a lifelong commitment. This can be best achieved by incorporating sustainable practices in the family, building awareness, and working together as one. There is no time machine to go back and stop the mistakes humanity made over the years. But we can certainly try to correct them. Let's make peace with our land, grow forests back and revive the drylands.

[email protected]

Share if you like