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Land Degradation, Desertification Cost Trillions, Create Refugees: Study

OSLO, Norway

Land degradation, including desertification, causes trillions of dollars worth of economic losses each year and could create tens of millions of refugees around the world, according to a new report by researchers with the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) initiative.

"One third of the world is vulnerable to land degradation; one third of Africa is threatened by desertification," said the report, "The Value of Land: Prosperous lands and positive rewards through sustainable land management," which was released in Oslo this week. The report was edited by the United Nations University Institute of Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH).

Half of the world’s farmland is already damaged to some degree, it warned.

Land degradation costs the world between $6.3 and $10.6 trillion USD per year in lost ecosystem services of various types, including food, timber, medicine, and freshwater production; nutrient cycling; and greenhouse gas absorption, it said. These costs are not evenly distributed, and often impact vulnerable groups such as the rural poor.

At the same time, the report noted, over 2 billion hectares of land worldwide is suitable for rehabilitation, and adopting sustainable land management practices could add $75.6 trillion USD to the global GDP.

The report cited UN data from 2012 indicating that as many as 50 million people could be forced to migrate within a decade due to encroaching desertification. This could “eventually create regional conflicts,” it warned.

“Increased land degradation is also one of the factors that can lead to migration and it is being exacerbated by climate change," European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella reiterated in a statement on the report.

The current Syrian crisis serves as an example of how desertification can contribute to insecurity and spur migration. A severe drought in Syria between 2006 and 2010 led to the collapse of farming in the northeastern part of the country and massive internal migration from rural to urban areas, which helped exacerbate tensions in the country.

“With desertification, land degradation, and urbanization encroaching on fertile lands globally, now is the time to mobilize our collective resources -- intellectual, physical, human, and financial,” the ELD report concluded. “We must efficiently and effectively harness what ecosystems can provide in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.”

The ELD was co-founded by the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the European Commission and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). It is headquartered in Bonn, Germany.