World Day to Combat Desertification

Manila Bulletin, June 17, 2006 | Go to article overview

World Day to Combat Desertification


DESERTIFICATION, the phenomenon of encroaching desert lands, is hardly a novel occurrence in the history of mankind. It has played a salient role in hastening the decline of civilizations since ancient times. For example, both the Sumerian and Babylonian empires suffered telling blows when their agricultural productivity was destroyed, a gradual process principally attributable to improper drainage practices that allowed excessive salt concentrations to pollute their irrigated lands. Archaeologists also have suggested that prolonged desiccation undercut the agricultural basis of the Harappan culture, a people who lived in the third millennium B.C. in what is now Pakistan. Finally, there seems little question that the Mediterranean littoral of Africa was far more fertile and cultivatable in the Carthaginian era (600-200 B.C.) than it is today.

Worldwide recognition of desertification as a transnational environmental problem did not come about until 1968, when a severe drought struck the Sahel, a region in western Africa lying along the southern margin of the Sahara. For six years, the countries of the Sahel - Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad - were devastated by uninterrupted drought and resultant famine. Lake Chad shrunk to one-third of its normal size; the Niger and Senegal river systems failed to flood, thus leaving barren much of the most productive croplands in the region. Shallow wells dried up, seriously restricting the grazing range of pastoralists, and vegetation was denuded as starving animals stripped the land. …

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