Opening of the International Conference on Desertification

Check against Delivery

Speech by Mr. Shafqat Kakakhel Deputy Executive Director and Officer in Charge United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) at the Opening of the International Conference on Desertification

Algiers, Algeria
Monday 5 June 2006

Your Excellency, the President of the Republic of Algeria, Mr. Abdelaziz Bouteflika,

Minister Chérif Rahmani,

Distinguished and honoured guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me first to express my gratitude to His Excellency Abdelaziz Bouteflika, President of the Republic of Algeria. Your support has been invaluable.

I would also like to thank Minister Rahmani, the city of Algiers and the country of Algeria for the enthusiasm you have shown in organising the celebrations for World Environment Day 2006.

When we were considering the theme for this year’s World Environment Day, it was clear that we had to link with the International Year of Deserts and Desertification, which is being spearheaded by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

Algeria was an obvious choice to highlight every facet of this complex issue

Few countries are better placed to embody, and indeed to understand, the issues that are central to the themes of the year: the outstanding beauty and fragility of deserts, and the destructive power of desertification.

Algeria’s geography, history and culture is inextricably bound with the Sahara, which is the world’s greatest and best-known desert.

Our choice was also made easier by the fact that Algeria’s Environment Minister, Chérif Rahmani, is serving as the United Nations honorary spokesman for the International Year of Deserts and Desertification.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the south of this outstandingly beautiful country, the rock paintings of the Tassili N'Ajjer bear testament to the fact that deserts are home to some of humankind’s oldest and most enduring cultures.

But they are also a reminder that fragile drylands can too easily become desert—for the tale these paintings tell is not of arid seas of sand and rock, but fertile savannah with water, trees and wildlife to sustain human culture.

Across the globe, from the Sahel to the Gobi Desert, people today face the same issues.

Drylands occupy 41 per cent of Earth’s land area. They are home to more than 2 billion people, many of them among the world’s poorest.

People living in drylands, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries, lag far behind the rest of the world in human well-being and development.

In developing countries, infant mortality in drylands averages about 54 children per 1,000 live births. This is twice as high as in non-dryland areas, and 10 times the infant mortality rate in developed countries.

When we talk about desertification, we must always remember that what we are talking about is people’s lives.

Dryland people depend heavily on the environmental services the land supplies: fodder for livestock, wood for cooking, water for survival.

We know that between 10 and 20 per cent of drylands are already degraded.

Population growth, and the increased pressure that it brings on the land for food production, combined with the growing threat from climate change, means that drylands will continue to deteriorate, unless we promote suitable solutions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You will notice I said ‘promote’, not ‘find’.

Of course, there is always a need for research into sustainable solutions to the issues facing drylands.

But what I want to emphasize here is that many of the solutions—whether they are at the policy level, or at the practical land management level—already exist.

Since its establishment, UNEP has emphasized the importance of preventing and reversing land degradation.

UNEP played an integral role in establishing the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and we are working alongside partners such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility, to implement it.

Over the years we have also gathered a comprehensive collection of success stories in the struggle against desertification from around the world.

Together they demonstrate that appropriate, replicable technological and policy solutions exist to address the challenges of the drylands.

Part of our struggle is to find ways of implementing these solutions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today’s conference is part of a larger process to raise awareness and catalyse action being conducted under the umbrella of the International Year of Deserts and Desertification.

Later today we will receive the Deserts Charter and the Algiers Call to Action in the struggle against desertification.

On 17 June we will observe the World Day to Combat Desertification.

And in October, Algiers will host a High Level Conference on Deserts and Desertification.

Hopefully, by the close of this International Year of Deserts and Desertification we will have a clearer vision of how to make use of the many tools that we already know are available to combat this most widespread and lethal of environmental threats.

Ladies and gentlemen

There is a fine line between dryland and desert—one which once crossed is hard to return from. It is vastly more cost-effective to prevent dryland degradation than to reverse it.

It is therefore essential that we focus on policies and technologies that will protect the world’s arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas.

These areas, where rainfall is low and evaporation is high, may be fragile, but if managed well they are also fertile and capable of supporting the habitats, crops and livestock that sustain nearly one-third of humanity.

The degradation of drylands is a growing problem that needs imaginative, collaborative and multi-sectoral action.

It is both a result of and a contributor to climate change.

It is both the cause and the consequence of poverty.

If left unchecked it threatens the future food security of humanity’s steadily growing population and the stability of communities and countries in all regions.

Therefore, on this World Environment Day, UNEP’s message to the world is ‘Don’t Desert Drylands!’.

Thank you


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