Science guides UN actions to curb land degradation

09Sep 2019
The Guardian
Science guides UN actions to curb land degradation

Forest fires, droughts, flashfloods and storms: Unusual trends are destroying lives and and making the public jittery because ignorance is no longer excusable, yet policy action seems too slow, writes Ibrahim Thiaw.

By Ibrahim Thiaw

The science suggests there is a stronger link between the planet's warming and its changing weather patterns, and these trends are stronger where significant changes to the use of land have occurred. The international community has plenty of opportunities, over the next two years, to take decisive action to strengthen the resilience of communities and ecosystems, and move in the direction the public desires.

The first of those opportunities is the 14th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, taking place in New Delhi, India, this and next week.

It is the world's most powerful decision-making body on desertification, land degradation and drought, with two complementary mandates. It guides actions to avoid and reduce land degradation, which is a key source of our vulnerability to disasters. It also supports actions to recover degraded land and mitigate the impacts of drought.

Testing the planet's resilience

The political will to act will be tested and examined, coming as the Conference does, less than a month after the release of the first authoritative report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This, and four other recent scientific assessments, are crystal clear. We have transformed the land significantly, and are testing the limits of its resilience.

About 75 percent of the land has been altered from its natural state, often, unsustainably. In a mere 50 years, we have rendered 23 percent of previously productive land virtually useless. Our insatiable use of land resources, including food, water and energy may be contributing up to 37 percent (or a third) of the greenhouse gases warming the Earth.

As a result, 1.3 billion people now live off degraded land. Close to 1 million species are threatened with extinction. Over 3.2 billion people -- about half of the global population -- are affected by land degradation.

To expect a two-week conference to find a silver bullet for these these challenges may seem unrealistic. And yet I am hopeful.

Epic force for change

Hopeful because of the governments' rapid implementation of major decisions on drought and land degradation taken in the last four years. Five years ago, only three countries in the world had national plans to manage droughts effectively. Today, 70 countries have set up comparable plans.

I am hopeful because the decision-makers mandated to take action have shown a willingness to investigate emerging issues thoroughly and scientifically for appropriate action to be taken promptly.

I am also hopeful because the agenda of the Conference shows that there is a willingness among governments to find solutions to knotty issues, some of which have been put on the back burner for a long time.

Public jitters of any kind such as the Fridays for Future youth protests across the world signal a growing impatience with inaction. Every day of action or inaction counts for our survival.

Half of the ministers who can ensure land is used optimally will be in New Delhi. That's an epic force for change that can raise the bar in land use and management and set the tone for the related actions on climate change and biodiversity in the not-too-distant future


Science (from the Latin word scientia, meaning  knowledge ) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

The earliest roots of science can be traced to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in around 3500 to 3000 BCE  Their contributions to mathematics, astronomy, and medicine entered and shaped Greek natural philosophy of classical antiquity, whereby formal attempts were made to provide explanations of events in the physical world based on natural causes.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, knowledge of Greek conceptions of the world deteriorated in Western Europe during the early centuries (400 to 1000 CE) of the Middle Ages but was preserved in the Muslim world during the Islamic Golden Age.[8] The recovery and assimilation of Greek works and Islamic inquiries into Western Europe from the 10th to 13th century revived "natural philosophy", which was later transformed by the Scientific Revolution that began in the 16th century as new ideas and discoveries departed from previous Greek conceptions and traditions.

The scientific method soon played a greater role in knowledge creation and it was not until the 19th century that many of the institutional and professional features of science began to take shape; along with the changing of "natural philosophy" to "natural science."

Modern science is typically divided into three major branches that consist of the natural sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, and physics), which study nature in the broadest sense; the social sciences (e.g., economics, psychology, and sociology), which study individuals and societies; and the formal sciences (e.g., logic, mathematics, and theoretical computer science), which study abstract concepts.

There is disagreement, however, on whether the formal sciences actually constitute a science as they do not rely on empirical evidence. Disciplines that use existing scientific knowledge for practical purposes, such as engineering and medicine, are described as applied sciences.

Science is based on research, which is commonly conducted in academic and research institutions as well as in government agencies and companies. The practical impact of scientific research has led to the emergence of science policies that seek to influence the scientific enterprise by prioritizing the development of commercial products, armaments, health care, and environmental protection.


Science in a broad sense existed before the modern era and in many historical civilizations. Modern science is distinct in its approach and successful in its results, so it now defines what science is in the strictest sense of the term. Science in its original sense was a word for a type of knowledge, rather than a specialized word for the pursuit of such knowledge.

In particular, it was the type of knowledge which people can communicate to each other and share. For example, knowledge about the working of natural things was gathered long before recorded history and led to the development of complex abstract thought. This is shown by the construction of complex calendars, techniques for making poisonous plants edible, public works at national scale, such as those which harnessed the floodplain of the Yangtse with reservoirs, dams, and dikes, and buildings such as the Pyramids.

However, no consistent conscious distinction was made between knowledge of such things, which are true in every community, and other types of communal knowledge, such as mythologies and legal systems. Metallurgy was known in prehistory, and the Vinča culture was the earliest known producer of bronze-like alloys. It is thought that early experimentation with heating and mixing of substances over time developed into alchemy.

Early cultures


Neither the words nor the concepts "science" and "nature" were part of the conceptual landscape in the ancient near east.[29] The ancient Mesopotamians used knowledge about the properties of various natural chemicals for manufacturing pottery, faience, glass, soap, metals, lime plaster, and waterproofing; they also studied animal physiology, anatomy, and behavior for divinatory purposes and made extensive records of the movements of astronomical objects for their study of astrology.

The Mesopotamians had intense interest in medicine and the earliest medical prescriptions appear in Sumerian during the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2112 BCE – c. 2004 BCE). Nonetheless, the Mesopotamians seem to have had little interest in gathering information about the natural world for the mere sake of gathering information and mainly only studied scientific subjects which had obvious practical applications or immediate relevance to their religious system.

Ibrahim Thiaw is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.



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