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UNITED NATIONS CONFERENCE ON DESERTIFICATION

317. In its capacity as the intergovernmental preparatory body for the United Nations Conference on Desertification, the Governing Council considered agenda item 10 at its 66th to 68th meetings on 12 and 13 May 1977. It had before it the progress report of the Executive Director (UNEP/GC/95 and Corr.1), the second preliminary draft of the plan of action to combat desertification and the first draft of "Desertification: an overview" (UNEP/GC/95/Add.1 and 2 respectively) as well as a report on the regional preparatory meetings (UNEP/GC/95/Add.3) and a report on the 1976 accounts and plan of expenditure (UNEP/GC/95/Add.4). Also available to the Council were the reports of the four regional preparatory meetings; a report of a meeting on insurance against drought for peoples at risk and on monitoring the human condition; a paper of the Environment Co-ordination Board on current international activities to combat desertification; and a document on the resolutions and recommendations of the United Nations Water Conference relating to the Conference on Desertification.

318. Introducing his report, the Executive Director, in his capacity as Secretary-General of the Conference, described some of the results which had emerged from the research, studies and meetings carried out during the past year as part of the Conference preparations.

319. It had been estimated that more than 5 million hectares of productive land were being lost each year; if the degraded irrigated land alone could be salvaged and restored to productivity, there would be a net annual gain of $650 million. But the main thrust of the proposed campaign against desertification would be towards prevention, which was less expensive than reclamation. The new draft of the plan of action would give greater prominence to immediate actions to combat desertification, make a clearer distinction between short-term and long-term activities, and stress the importance of improved land use as a means of stemming the spread of deserts. There would also be major changes in the recommendations, on the basis of resolutions of the United Nations Water Conference, as well as suggestions put forward by the regional preparatory meetings and the views expressed by delegations at the fifth session of the Governing Council.

320. The spirit of enthusiasm and determination which had prevailed throughout all four regional meetings was a hopeful augury for the Conference itself. They had provided new knowledge about the extent and nature of the desertification processes in different regions of the world, and the views expressed by the specialists participating would be taken into account when preparing the final texts of the Conference documents, particularly the plan of action. The central concern of the plan would be directed towards the well-being and development of peoples in territories vulnerable to desertification. Particularly in the least-developed countries, measures against desertification could succeed only as part of social and economic development.

321. He hoped that, in view of the importance which the General Assembly attached to the Conference, delegations would include high government officials with policy-making responsibilities. Since it was only through sustained global action by the international community that the degradation of once productive lands could be effectively stopped, participation at the Conference must also be global in order that the responsibility be shared by all.

322. The orientation workshop to be held immediately after the Conference for government representatives of countries concerned with desertification problems would be directed towards arrangements for implementing the plan of action. Some Governments had established ad hoc national committees for the Conference, which had given unstinting assistance in the preparations for the Conference and the follow-up to it; he hoped that other Governments would follow suit, in order to increase public participation and awareness.

323. The Secretary-General of the United Nations Water Conference stated that the achievements of that Conference were in a large measure due to the continuing support given by UNEP at all stages. The Water Conference, as the first occasion when the whole range and complexity of water development problems had been surveyed comprehensively by a world forum at the policy-making level, had stimulated new commitment on the part of Governments and the world community.

324. Among the recommendations of the Conference relevant to the work of UNEP was one calling for measures to minimize drought damage and to develop water resources for the benefit of drought-affected areas. A related resolution called for urgent action to define water policy as a priority area in the efforts to combat desertification, with appropriate institutional arrangements for the management of surface and ground water in arid and semi-arid regions. A special report had been prepared for consideration by the United Nations Conference on Desertification. Implementation of the recommendations of the Water Conference required concerted action at the national, regional and international levels and by the United Nations system, particularly in monitoring the follow-up.

325. Delegations expressed general appreciation of the documents submitted to the Council. Representatives of countries which did not themselves suffer from desertification nevertheless said that the problem was global and that they would support the Conference and the implementation of its recommendations; one such representative stated that the effort to combat desertification was also an issue of international solidarity. Many delegations described their national experiences in combating desertification, including those that would be incorporated in the Conference documentation as case studies. One delegation expressed the view that there should be a more consistent definition of desertification as used in the draft plan.

326. It was generally considered that there was a need to expand the dissemination of information about desertification through the mass media, especially radio, and to ensure an awareness of its causes and solutions among the people suffering its consequences, as well as among decision-makers. Popular participation should be encouraged through training and education. Some delegations requested further information about the orientation workshop to be held immediately after the Conference.

327. One delegation drew attention to the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, soon to be opened for signature. Article III, in particular, related to the new recommendation proposed by the regional preparatory meeting held in Nairobi on the prohibition of biological and environmental weapons causing desertification. Reference was also made to the possibilities of the peaceful use of such techniques to combat desertification. It was proposed that there should be greater emphasis on health measures to be taken in arid areas undergoing redevelopment, where the population would be subject to new diseases and new environmental problems.

328. A number of delegations mentioned the need for greater emphasis in the draft overview on the social and economic aspects of desertification and for recognition of the great variety of experiences in countries with different social, economic and cultural systems.

329. The intention to make a clearer distinction in the plan of action between priorities requiring immediate action and those involving longer-term action was welcomed. One delegation felt that immediate action might concentrate on narrowly defined measures to sustain marginal lands, rather than on a broader approach to development, which should be a longer-term goal. It was considered that the plan was still insufficiently detailed to serve as a basis for truly effective global action.

330. Several delegations felt that it was premature to discuss institutional arrangements until there was a clearer understanding of the scope and purpose of the plan of action. If the plan dealt with the wider problems of arid land development, the institutional arrangements required might be different from those needed if the plan dealt exclusively with measures to combat desertification. There was agreement that the existing machinery within the United Nations system was adequate for coordinating the implementation of the recommendations of the Conference, and that no additional body should be established.

331. The question of the need for dissemination, as well as processing, of data was raised, and many delegations expressed support for wide application of existing knowledge rather than the conduct of new research projects. It was suggested that

a paper evaluating options for the implementation of follow-up activities should be prepared for the Conference.

332. Some concern was expressed about the lack of sufficient clarity on action needed to finance the implementation of the plan of action. The need for supporting action at the regional and local levels was indicated, and it was suggested that, once priorities were established, regional meetings might be convened to discuss such action.

333. Several delegations indicated the intention of their Governments to participate

in the transnational projects which were of concern to them. Mention was made of

the feasibility studies on the major regional aquifers of North-East Africa and the

Arabian peninsula, the green belt in North Africa, the transnational development of

grazing resources in the Sahelian countries, and regional monitoring of desertification processes in South-West Asia and South America. In relation to the

green belt, emphasis was placed on the concept of a mosaic of land-use practice

rather than a barrier of trees.

334. The representative of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania described the

difficulties of the population in South Africa, who were evacuated from their homes

and were victims of man-created desertification caused by racial policies. He

suggested that assistance was needed to help those who suffered.

335. The representative of WMO, responding to a question concerning the provision of information on drought situations, made a distinction between meteorological drought, which referred to rainfall deficiency, and agricultural drought, which referred to the effects of meteorological drought on plant growth. He described the ways in which meteorological and climatological data relating to drought were made available under WMO programmes, in particular World Weather Watch. While it was not at present possible to forecast the location, intensity and duration of individual droughts, a better idea of the feasibility of making such forecasts should be one of the benefits of the Global Atmospheric Research Programme, the assistance of UNEP for which was appreciated.

336. The representative of FAO informed the Council of the relevant activities of FAO with special reference to the early warning system, under which countries received warning about potential agricultural losses due to drought.

337. One delegation expressed the hope that the desertification maps prepared for the Conference could be considered as tentative until experts from Governments in the regions concerned had reviewed them.

338. The Executive Director indicated that the various points put forward would be seriously considered when preparing the final draft of the overview and the plan of action, which would be revised in the light of the Governing Council debate, as well as of the recommendations put forward at the four regional meetings.

339. He felt that there was only one option for follow-up activities to the Conference, namely, to involve the whole United Nations system in the implementation of the plan. The recommendation that there should be a unit within UNEP to assist the Environment Co-ordination Board in overseeing the implementation of the plan did not mean the creation of a separate institutional body.

340. In elaborating on the information concerning the orientation workshop, he said that it had been agreed, after consultation, that the workshop was needed after the Conference to discuss implementation of the urgent elements of the plan of action. Small groups of the technicians available at that time could discuss management problems and exchange experience, taking advantage of the momentum generated to discuss the prospects for, and difficulties to be surmounted before, the successful implementation of immediate action identified by the Conference.

341. The Executive Director also stated that the World Map of Desertification had already been printed by FAO for distribution, and the current edition could not be changed. The Conference secretariat would consult with FAO on the best way of bringing technical comments on the map to the notice of the Conference. The Experimental Map of Desertification in South America was being modified as a result of discussion at the Santiago preparatory meeting for the Americas.

Action by the Governing Council

342. At its 74th plenary meeting, on 24 May 1977, the Governing Council adopted by consensus, as orally amended by the representative of India, a draft decision submitted by the President on the United Nations.

343. Two delegations emphasized the desirability of circulating to all Governments at least six weeks in advance of the Conference, in accordance with established procedures, the revised draft of the plan of action to combat desertification. The Executive Director gave an assurance that it would be.

344. The representative of the Soviet Union announced his Government's readiness, in the context of the actions referred to in paragraph 3 of the decision, to consider the possibility, with financing from the Fund of UNEP, of its scientific institutions conducting general studies of desertification and its control in various regions, and of holding seminars and courses on methods of combating desertification. The representative of Brazil expressed his Government's reservation with regard to paragraph 7 of the decision: since the content of the recommendations of the Conference was not yet decided, it was premature to call on Governments to make those recommendations widely known.