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World Environment Day 2024: land restoration and resilience against desertification and drought

Every June 5th, the world comes together to celebrate World Environment Day, a global initiative led by the UN to raise awareness and promote environmental action. In 2024, the focus is on land restoration, combating desertification, and strengthening resilience against drought — critical issues for the planet's sustainability and the survival of millions of people.

Land restoration and mitigating the effects of desertification and drought are urgent priorities. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, estimates that 75 billion tonnes of fertile soil are lost each year due to land degradation. Similarly, 12 million hectares of land are lost annually due to desertification and drought alone.

Under the theme "Our Land. Our Future. We are #GenerationRestoration", the UN this year emphasizes the need to rehabilitate degraded terrestrial ecosystems and strengthen communities' capacity to withstand and recover from droughts.

The triple challenge of desertification, drought, and land degradation

Land degradation, desertification, and drought are interrelated challenges that have devastating effects on the environment, the economy, and human communities. The three problems are closely linked but also deserve individual analysis.

Land degradation refers to the deterioration of soil quality due to factors such as deforestation, overgrazing, unsustainable agriculture, and climate change. According to the UNCCD, up to 40% of the planet's terrestrial areas are degraded, directly affecting half of the world's population. This issue reduces agricultural productivity, which can lead to rising food prices, exacerbating food insecurity and poverty, and forcing migration in search of better living conditions.

Desertification is not the natural expansion of existing deserts but an extreme form of land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. It is a gradual process of soil productivity loss because of human activities and climatic variations such as droughts and floods. Among human activities driving desertification are overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation, and poor irrigation practices. Desertification directly affects 250 million people and a third of the earth's land surface. Though it affects Africa the most, where two-thirds of the continent is desert or drylands, it is a global problem. For example, over 30% of the land in the United States is affected by desertification.

Drought, on the other hand, is a natural phenomenon that has become more frequent and intense due to climate change. According to the UN, the number and duration of drought periods have increased by 29% since the year 2000, and if urgent measures are not taken, droughts could affect more than three-quarters of the world's population by 2050. Currently, the figures are almost as devastating as their effects: 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed conditions, and 160 million children are exposed to severe droughts. In Europe, there were 45 major droughts in the 20th century, resulting in economic losses exceeding 27.8 billion dollars. Specifically in Spain, Catalonia has experienced the most severe drought in two hundred years this year. Additionally, according to Aon, the 2023 drought caused economic losses of 5.5 billion euros in the country, ranking among the most costly climate disasters of 2023, according to Christian Aid.

Land restoration and drought resilience are not only essential for the survival of millions of people but also for the health and well-being of the planet. World Environment Day 2024 reminds us of the urgent need to restore degraded lands, stop desertification, and strengthen resilience against drought. The water sector plays a central role in this mission by offering innovative and sustainable solutions.

Water sector solutions to increase resilience against desertification and drought

The water sector plays a crucial role in mitigating desertification and improving drought resilience. Integrated water resources management is essential to maintain water availability during drought periods. The implementation of real-time monitoring and control systems facilitates decision-making and optimizes operational processes, contributing to efficient water management, which has already become a global priority.

Within this efficient management, special attention must be paid to water used for irrigation. As the sector that consumes the most water resources, there is an urgent need to redefine water use in food production. Promoting more efficient irrigation techniques and greater control of illegal irrigation, combined with the use of advanced technologies to monitor and manage irrigation, along with the shift to crops more resistant to water stress, is helping farmers better adapt to drought conditions.

The water sector plays a crucial role in mitigating desertification and improving drought resilience

Furthermore, investing in alternative water sources such as reuse and desalination is crucial to ensuring supply during periods of scarcity. On one hand, the reuse of treated wastewater for agricultural and urban uses is promoted to help maximize the use of every drop of water. On the other hand, investment in desalination plants is increasing to provide potable water in coastal areas and support agriculture in drought-affected regions.

In this context, modernizing water supply and treatment infrastructure is essential. Leveraging the advantages offered by digitalisation, the combination of advanced technologies with efficient water cycle management is a good way to ensure a continuous and quality supply even under water scarcity conditions.

Lastly, we must not forget the restoration of wetlands. They act as natural sponges that absorb and retain water, helping to mitigate the effects of droughts. Protecting and restoring these ecosystems is fundamental to maintaining biodiversity and water quality. Additionally, wetlands act as natural filters, removing contaminants from water and providing crucial habitats for many species.

As Gonzalo Delacámara points out regarding water management in the context of desertification risk, it is necessary to rethink the water management model and link it to economic and social development, promoting the reuse of wastewater and the restoration of aquatic ecosystems.