UN report warns of land loss

Soil degradation could trigger a new, even larger refugee wave

In many parts of Africa, as here in Mauritania, desertification has already begun. © Kirchgessern / GIZ
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We are losing ground under our feet: A recent UN report warns of the serious consequences of global soil degradation. Already now, more than nine trillion euros a year are being lost through erosion and degradation of land - and there is more. The result is a new wave of refugees: 50 million people could already look for a new home in the next ten years, predict the researchers.

More recently, researchers have been alarming Europe: our continent is eroding more fertile soil than new. And already in 2007, scientists warned against the spread of desertification. The loss of fertile land could still lead to mass immigration in our generation, it was said at that time.

The current UN report "Value of the Land" confirms this and delivers concrete figures. For him, a collaboration of 30 research institutes in a wide range of countries has collected and evaluated data on land use, ecology and ground-based services such as food, poverty reduction, clean water or nutrient recycling for four years.

1, 300 euros per capita and year

Their result: Every year, soil degradation alone causes between 5.5 and 9.4 trillion euros lost in ecosystem services worldwide. Converted to each individual, this equates to 770 to 1, 300 euros per capita per year. "Soil degradation is eating away our fertile land - and with it our resource base, " warns Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UN Convention against Desertification.

Deforestation is one of the reasons for the loss of fertile soil © GIZ

Already, 52 percent of all agricultural soils worldwide are considered to be moderately to heavily degraded, as the researchers report. About one third of the soil is in acute danger of degradation, and one third of Africa is even in danger of becoming a desert, according to the report. The land area affected by heavy thirst has already doubled in the last 30 years. display

50 million refugees

And there is one more thing that shows: if the trend continues, soil degradation will drive millions of people out of the areas most affected. "Land degradation is one of the factors that leads to migration and it will be reinforced by climate change, " says Daniel Calleja Crespo of the European Commission.

Soil degradation could drive millions of other refugees to Europe and North America Naomi Stewart

Within the next ten years, 50 million refugees could find a new home. "Climate refugees will be a new challenge if we do not act fast, " says Crespo. Already, for example, the civil war in Syria is at least partly climate-related. For only a multi-year drought brought large parts of the rural population into the cities, where social conflicts and mismanagement ultimately triggered political unrest.

Soil protection helps to avoid a humanitarian crisis

In addition to climate change, blighting land degradation and the loss of fertile land is mainly due to a change in land use: 75% of the cost of ecosystem services, according to the researchers, is attributed to their account. But that also means that action is still possible. More sustainable land management and near-natural forest management could be the first step. In addition, there should be more incentives for farmers, forest owners and local people to be more responsive to the soil.

"Most of the measures either have neutral costs or net profits for society and do not require substantial capital investment, " say the researchers. These include tax relief and favorable loans for sustainable projects and initiatives, as well as support measures and certification systems.

The benefits are clear to the scientists: if land degradation is tackled effectively, it could not only help avoid a huge humanitarian crisis. It would also contribute € 67 trillion per year to the world's income. The "The Value of the Land" report will be formally presented on September 24, 2015, before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

(United Nations University, 16.09.2015 - NPO)