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A pathway to peace through the desert

As climate change degrades the land and causes wars, Israel can be a world leader in battling desertification

Land degradation is a major driver of insecurity, forced migration and conflict worldwide. As the Netherlands Clingendael Institute recently put it, it is a threat amplifier. It takes whatever underlying weaknesses that exist and exploits them. If social or economic problems already exist, either land degradation or climate change can tip communities over the edge and into conflict.

This is particularly true where climate change reduces the availability of resources, such as land and water, which are vital for life. In the next 35 years, as the impacts of climate change bite and as the population hits 9 billion people, land-related issues, that we once imagined to be local problems, are set to shape our understanding of regional and global security.

Slow onset environmental changes like desertification, land degradation and drought are a direct threat to human survival. The worst affected are poor communities in arid, mountainous and low-lying coastal regions of less-developed countries. Very few attractive options are open to vulnerable people with limited capacity to adapt.

In the first instance, as land and other resource productivity declines, populations migrate. This puts pressure on urban environments as informal settlements spring up. But in pastoral areas, such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, issues related to land use are increasingly leading to conflict. In the Darfur conflict for example, the decline in productive land was made worse by droughts, erratic rainfall, and population growth – both human and animal. When nomads were obliged to move outside their usual areas, tensions with sedentary farmers grew. Ethnic groups, with very different traditions of land use, came up against each another. An estimated two million people are believed to have died as a result of fighting and conflict-induced famine, while four million people were forced from their homes.

One of the biggest challenges was and continues to be the availability of water. This is tied directly to how we manage the land. The lack of sufficient water is a growing concern for the environment and for security. By 2025, up to 2.4 billion people maybe living in areas subject to periods of intense water scarcity. Water may well become a powerful weapon. The United Nations Environment Programme claims that there has already been a 28% increase in water conflicts in the first decade of the 21st century compared to the previous 25 years.

The threat can come be internal or international or both. Military analysts often claim that Nigeria is facing increasing infiltration from extremist Islamist groups operating in neighboring countries. Nigerians though tend to point to the economic imbalance between north and south of the country; decades of neglect and degradation, declining food security and poor rains as providing the space that a home-grown terrorist movement was able to fill. Both assessments are at least in part true.

Such developments should though put all those who live in drought prone areas, like Israel, on notice. The sustainable and integrated management of water and land resources everywhere will be ever more crucial for long term security.

Israel, perhaps more than most countries, is prepared for drought. Yet, despite technologies that mean desalination provides about a fourth of the country’s water supplies and leading the world in software that helps detect leaks and computerized drip irrigation, a severe drought is a major challenge. This winter, rainfall was as record low levels and underground aquifers have not been refilled. Neighboring Jordan was considering rationing because rainfall was at 34 percent of the average this season. Palestinian per capita daily freshwater consumption is four times lower than for Israelis.

If land and water practices do not improve around the world, you can easily see more droughts and more serious consequences. An increasing number of contested claims for crucial resources, such as trans-boundary water resources, will not help ease geopolitical tensions.

The world has much to learn from the Israeli experience in combating desertification. Israel is a world leader in developing scientific and technological solutions that stop and reverse land degradation; reduce drought and water scarcity, boost food security and help communities adapt to climate change. The government of Israel works in partnerships for development. For example, The Government of Israel through MASHAV – Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, implements Projects in the highly affected Sahel region, with the aim of promoting and sustaining a fair socio-economic development process by way of introducing TIPA, a small-scale horticultural production package developed by Israeli experts and researchers, based on low-pressure drip-irrigation, a mix of annual and tree crops, and an operating system which leads the farmer to irrigate according to scientific and commercial principles. The private sector, academia as well as some leading Israeli NGOs, have also lent their expertise and shared their knowledge with several African countries. The effort is in delivering know-how to governments, communities and farmers to enhance food security, community development and overall national employment and economic growth.

It is a great example of cooperation.

It is clear that practical land-based solutions help reduce the burden of climate change. Sustainable land and water management practices that have been refined here in Israel are often low-cost. They rarely require resource-intensive inputs as is the case for a lot of modern industrial agriculture. In Africa, the adoption of these practices can help more than double yields bringing development and food security and conserving other vital resources such as water. The practices would also increase rural employment opportunities, easing migration pressures and reducing the incidence of competition and conflicts over the land. That could equally apply in our region. It needs a paradigm shift in how we value and see the land. It needs a common commitment to securing land and water resources, even in the face of climate change, for future generations.

That is why we should aim, as part of the 2015 global sustainable development targets, to increase the amount of land under sustainable land management and reach land degradation neutrality. This would allow the region to grow more with less. Investing in practical solutions that transform lives and increase adaptive capacity would certainly be cheaper and work better than investing in wars and relief. Improving the resilience of land-dependent communities will improve security and help ensure international stability.

About the Author
Monique Barbut is Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification