Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Menace of Desert Advance

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Menace of Desert Advance

Article excerpt

The menace of desert advance

FOR the past twenty years, areas on the fringe of the Sahara have suffered from profound disturbances which have drastically changed the facts of desertification. In addition to the persistence of the drought, these areas have undergone substantial socio-economic and ecological changes which have even increased the severity of the problem.

Although scientific knowledge about near-desert environments has made enormous progress, a great deal still has to be done on the practical level to arrive at solutions which are adapted to the ecological and socio-economic conditions prevailing there.

Research must therefore aim not only at broadening knowledge and at improving the methods of exploiting natural resources but also at taking greater account of the characteristics of these resources in relation to technological development and to changes in socio-economic conditions.

It was with just such things in mind that Unesco launched its major international programme on Man and the Biosphere (MAB). The goal of this programme, which started operations early in the 1970s, is to promote a new approach to research on natural environments, studying the impact of human activities on natural resources in order to identify the best ways of using those resources. As well as leading to an improvement of methods, this programme has contributed to the launching of pilot projects embracing research, training and demonstration activities and closely involving the people concerned, researchers, extension workers and decision-makers.

In preparation for a special meeting held in Nairobi in April/May 1984 to make a general assessment of progress in the implementation of the Plan of Action to combat desertification, Unesco was requested to update three case-studies concerning Chile, Niger and Tunisia which were initially prepared for the 1977 United Nations Conference on Desertification.

The study on Niger provides a typical example of the way MAB works.

Updating the case-study shows that of the two main causes of desertification, that is, the prolonged drought and increasing human and animal pressure, either could have been the main one. However, the fact that there are instances of serious deterioration in sparsely inhabited regions means that the initial cause of the process was the inadequate rainfall. There is reason to believe that if, in 1970, human and animal pressure on the natural environment had been less severe, the effects of the drought would have been neither as swift nor as dramatic, but they would have existed in a more localized fashion.

By 1983, despite a rise in rainfall since 1977, the vegetation had not yet returned to its pre-drought level, either in quantity or in quality. This was certainly due to the fact that the rains during these "good years' were neither abundant enough nor sufficiently well distributed to make up for the heavy toll of the long years of previous deficits, and also because human and animal pressure on pastoral areas had outpaced regeneration. When the crisis began during the 1970s, the pastoral load was eased as the people fled and was eased even more towards the end as animals died after depleting all the fodder. After the exceptional drought, the return of Peul cattle herds, the livestock replenishment policy and the rapid increase of small livestock has led to a rapid reconstitution of herds, though previous numbers have not yet been attained. …

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