A bi-monthly update on the work of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)


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In this issue







“Stunning” photo wins 2009 UNCCD contest
The girl stands on the dry lake-bed, her eyes troubled and distant. She cradles a clay water pot. The wind blows strands of hair across her cheek and her sari blooms like a strange flower. More…

From the Executive Secretary
Decisions on new science, services and operational reforms could make for a historic 9th Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD (COP9), says Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja. Read message…

A fresh assault on land degradation
The UNCCD Scientific Conference unveils new tools for improved monitoring and assessment and more effective evidence-based decision-making. Full story…

The search for scientific indicators
The ongoing hunt for a consensus on how to size up and tackle desertification has started producing substantial results. Full story...

Refreshing NAPs
The National Action Programmes translate our Convention into action on the ground. Here are practical guidelines to help NAPs hitch up to the new UNCCD strategy. Full story…

Interview: “Move beyond empty phrases”
Homero Bibiloni, Secretary for the Environment and Sustainable Development and host of COP9, shares Argentina’s experience of drought, sustainable development and climate change negotiations. Full interview…

Steam-driven power from desert sun
Aiming to generate energy security, investment and jobs, the new Desertec Industrial Initiative could mean sustainable production of electricity – and water – in the world’s most arid areas. Full story…

Recent online publications, useful links, intriguing websites, videos and a crop of new UNCCD reports. Go to section...


As I write these words, the final touches are being put to the ninth session of the Conference of the Parties, to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. By early November 2009, when the next issue of UNCCD News is published, COP9 will be history. But in the meantime, representatives of the 193 Signatory States and Parties to the Convention will have met in formal session to take a sustained and critical look at the science, policies and programme that we have been systematically aligning since 2007 with the Convention’s new strategy.

Success in Buenos Aires will be due in large measure to the generous hospitality, skillful organization and policy know-how of host country Argentina, itself confronted with grave problems of drought and desertification. However, the usefulness of our meetings there will also depend on participants’ assessment of the improved tools, services and working methods proposed by the Secretariat and the Convention’s working bodies.

The past two years of focused and sustained work on strategic reform and implementation, instigated at COP8, are just a start. May the fresh impetus they bring help make COP9 a milestone in the Convention’s rise to new relevance and prominence.

Luc Gnacadja
UNCCD Executive Secretary 

See the latest COP9 programme and documentation

Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja


CST set for fresh assault on desertification and land degradation 

The UNCCD 1st Scientific Conference in September is likely to significantly clarify the picture of global trends in desertification and land degradation, and strengthen the world’s concerted efforts to deal with them. The landmark event, titled “Understanding desertification and land degradation trends”, has been set up by the Dryland Science for Development Consortium (DSD), a group of five organizations* that are leading authorities in their field.

According to the DSD website, the Scientific Conference was to issue a report on “the state-of-the-art in desertification monitoring and assessment” and “practicable, actionable science-based policy recommendations” to the UNCCD’s Committee on Science and Technology (CST). The results were expected to spill over into the broader debate by government representatives attending COP9, set to convene at the same time in the Argentine capital.

Global consultation on White Papers Due to general dissatisfaction with the scientific output of the UNCCD so far and the growing urgency of tackling land degradation, preparations for the Conference began right after COP8 in September 2007 in Madrid. Under DSD guidance, three thematic working groups crafted the scientific framework for the discussions in Buenos Aires, preparing detailed White Papers on their respective topic through workshops and online consultations with an international range of scientists and other stakeholders.

“The UNCCD’s first Scientific Conference marks a fundamental change in the way business is done within the CST,” says William Dar, chairperson of the CST. “The conference in Buenos Aires is really a global consultation. We opened the discussions up to qualified scientists everywhere. In preparation, more than 100 scientists worldwide contributed to the online discussions. We expect several hundred scientists at the event itself this September. We want the best ideas to rise to the top.”

Higher standards The CST is a crucially important organ of the UNCCD, and the conference is designed to strengthen the capacities, structure and support that the CST needs to achieve the Convention’s goals. Among the expected longer-term results are higher standards of scientific quality in the UNCCD’s reports and deeper analysis of major desertification issues.

Finally, the push for reforms may also result in more effective coordination with the other two so-called “Rio conventions”. The CST will scrutinize the workings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for ideas worth adapting, while highlighting the special strengths of the UNCCD. Says CST Chairperson Dar: “We can learn from the scientific advisory models of our sister Conventions, while not forgetting the uniquely pro-poor and pro-development aspects of our own.” (See interview below.)

*European DesertNet, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the European Commission Joint Research Centre - Institute for Environment and Sustainability (JRC-IES), and United Nations University's International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH)

Understanding Desertification and Land Degradation Trends; 22-24 September, 2009, Hilton Hotel, Buenos Aires. Draft conference agenda


A new road to “practicable, actionable science-based policy recommendations” for improved decision-making




UNCCD's “people-centered vision”


“We need a more science-driven, rather than process-driven CST. And the science, in turn, must be demand-driven, based on open and transparent consultations with as wide a range of stakeholders as possible. I call this science with a human face, and it’s in keeping with the participatory, people-centered vision of the UNCCD.


“The study of people-environment interactions lies at the cutting edge of global change research; historically, much research has focused on either people or the environment, but not at how the two interact. This approach requires many different scientific specialties, and has to think about how science can better support decision-making by governments.”


”The CST’s work is about more than soil science. It's about people and the environment in drylands. We want the Science Conference to think about how the environment supports people, especially the poor -- and how people in turn have to protect the environment in order to continue to benefit from that support. The Conference will look at how the UNCCD can improve its monitoring and assessment of the interaction between people and the environment in order to know whether we are on a sustainable path.”

“The study of the interactions between people and the environment is at the cutting edge of global change research.”

William Dar
Chairperson, UNCCD Committee on Science and Technology (CST)


Measuring impact

The ongoing hunt for a consensus on how to size up and tackle desertification and land degradation has started producing substantial results. Eleven new measures of progress towards helping humans and ecosystems hit by desertification and generating global benefits – three of the four objectives of the UNCCD 10-year strategic plan (2008-2018) – are up for final discussion and approval at COP9.

Prepared by the Committee on Science and Technology, the proposed indicators emerged from an in-depth review of available scientific writing and a global consultation of affected Parties on impact indicators currently in use. This was supported by a survey on methodologies, baselines and capacity-building needs carried out in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Northern Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Europe. On top of that came an assessment of available data at other United Nations agencies and intergovernmental organizations.

“The selected indicators are measurable, reliable, specific, applicable at the national, regional and global levels and cost-effective,” the report says.

Eleven key indicators Four indicators focus on ways to measure the well-being of  an affected population. This includes water availability per capita, the proportion of the population in affected areas living above the poverty line and the Human Development Index (HDI), as well as childhood malnutrition and/or food consumption/calorie intake per capita in affected areas.

A further four indicators gauge the ecosystems: the extent of land degradation, plant and animal biodiversity, the Aridity Index and the level of carbon stocks above and below ground. Finally, three indicators concern the change in land use, land cover status and the extent of land under sustainable land management.

The UNCCD report points out that most of the data needed to construct these measures is already being collected by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The support of these organizations would be sought to help countries prepare for the first reporting cycle, expected to get underway in 2012.

UNCCD report: “Advice on how best to measure progress on strategic objectives 1, 2 and 3 of the 10-year Strategic Plan and Framework to Enhance the Implementation of the Convention”; 21 pages. Download PDF

Moroccan potato crop: calorie intake is one of the CST’s 11 indicators to measure progress on strategic objectives


Aligning NAPs with ‘The Strategy’

Much has changed in the decade since work first started on National Action Programmes (NAPs) for the implementation of the Convention. New global studies like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have deepened understanding of the causes of land degradation, while G8 commitments to development funding and the recent food-price crisis have led to new financing mechanisms and policy initiatives. The shifts in the Convention’s operating environment also led COP8 in September 2007 to approve the UNCCD 10-year strategic plan and framework (2008-2018), generally known as The Strategy. This specifically “recognizes the need for Parties to realign their national action programme.”

Building on seven NAP alignment workshops around the world, the UNCCD Secretariat has now come up with detailed guidelines to facilitate that process. “We’re trying to further build the case for combating drought, land degradation and desertification and promoting sustainable land management,” says Massimo Candelori, UNCCD Head of Unit, Facilitation, Coordination and Monitoring of Implementation (FCMI). “The ultimate aim is to help preserve a healthy environment, ease the impact of climate change on the poor and generate sustainable growth.”


“The National Action Programmes are the backbone of the UNCCD. NAPs provide the tools for implementation on the ground.”

Luc Gnacadja
Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

Getting everything in line: Ferdinand Singh's photograph of a rural family in Albay, Philippines

Four scenarios The guidelines offer four different NAP alignment scenarios – programmes under implementation, pending implementation, still in preparation or not yet initiated. The guidelines recommend that NAP implementation, monitoring and evaluation and access to funding be supported by planning that provides baseline information, sets targets and a timeframe, specifies the range of activities envisaged to reach the targets, and identifies indicators (see previous story) to measure progress. Further, aligned NAPs should embrace grassroots governance (whether territorial or local) and seek grassroots ownership and be integrated, or ‘mainstreamed’, into the national development process.

"Many NAPs were drawn up and set into motion at a time when we knew much less about combating land degradation and drought, and before the UNCCD 10-Year Strategy was approved at COP8,” says Nikola Rass, Associate Programme Officer at the Convention’s FCMI Unit. “Today, our improved know-how about what works, as well as the urgency and specificity of The Strategy, mean that many countries that have signed the Convention should really take a close look at these new guidelines. We're pretty certain that they will make NAP implementation much more effective, as well as easier."

Alignment of national, sub-regional and regional action programmes with The Strategy


COP9 should “produce concrete results that offer real help to people on the ground”

Drought and desertification are no strangers to Argentina, says Secretary of State for Environment and Sustainable Development Homero Máximo Bibiloni


On the significance of sustainable land management and Argentina’s National Action Programme
It’s fundamentally important because a large area of Argentina’s landmass is affected by desertification and drought. The set of activities now underway in these areas demands a broad approach to sustainability that adds value to the lives of local populations and affords them a measure of social dignity. The major challenge of our Plan de Acción Nacional is integrating all the actors, meaning we have to reach out beyond the strictly environmental and involve the farming, mining and industrial communities. The goal is to minimize our collective impact on the land, not augment it – this is a key issue in this country.

Argentina’s vanishing fields – Pedro Apaolaza, president of the Confederation of Rural Associations of Buenos Aires and La Pampa Provinces (CARBAP), stands on drought-blasted land in southern Buenos Aires province, traditionally a fertile farming region. (Photo from July 2009)

On the outlook for COP9
What we’re hoping for from this meeting is first and foremost a holistic approach that favours greater synergy between the Rio conventions and that aims to produce concrete results that offer real help to people on the ground. Let’s move beyond empty phrases and the elaboration of yet more documents that just postpone solutions. What we’re aiming for is outcomes that involve people and improve the quality of life in those areas where they live.

On what Argentina demands of the Copenhagen climate summit in December
In the first place, we don’t share the view that desertification should be subsumed into the issue of climate change. Of course, we know that climate change undoubtedly affects rainfall and is also connected to soil health. But desertification is much more than a component of climate change, because desertification throws up issues that involve the economy, poverty and social development. What Argentina hopes will emerge from the Copenhagen summit is that those countries with environmental obligations commit to active cooperation with the world, not just in our mitigation of the impact of the planetary emissions they have generated, but also in our collective adaptation to it. We’d like to see various countries meet their responsibilities through a system of non-reimbursable funding for adaptation. At the same time, we’re open to mitigation opportunities that benefit all stakeholders.

See the text of Argentina’s National Action Programme (Programa de Accion Nacional de Lucha contra la Desertificacion) and its six strategic areas of implementation – Spanish only.

Argentina: Desertification basics

World’s 8th largest country (2.8m sq. km.), after India

Arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas occupy 75% of the total land mass

Argentina’s drylands account for 50% of all agricultural production and 47% of all cattle ranching

60 million ha soil suffering from erosion

Degraded and desertified land expanding by 650,000 ha per year

66% of natural forest cover disappeared in the 75 years to 2006

Approx. 30% of Argentina’s 39 m. people live in rural areas

40% of rural population have unmet basic needs (UBN)

Argentina ratified UNCCD in 1996

Government launched National Action Programme (NAP) in 2002

Source: Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Buenos Aires

Satellite photos of southern Buenos Aires province from 2008 (above) and 2009 (below) tell a worrying story. Click on the images to see full size

“First comprehensive overview” of research into drylands and climate change interaction

Until recently, the connections between climate change and dryland degradation have scarcely featured in climate policy debate. In their foreword to this new book, UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja and Adolf Kloke-Lesch, Director-General of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), point out that for the decade-and-a-half following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, “the climate and land community ... largely ignored one another.”

For the last couple of years, however, scientific observation has made the interaction of land degradation and climate change ever more obvious. The publisher of this new book calls it “the first comprehensive overview of the state of research” on the complex issues surrounding both.  It includes details on how drylands contribute to climate change and on how recent and projected climatic changes will affect drylands in turn. The book also offers important sections on mitigation and adaptation. Sustainable land management, the authors say, must be part of the world’s response.

Running dry? Climate change in drylands and how to cope with it. Edited by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH; 144 pages; published by Oekom Verlag, Munich


Chance encounter nets Indian photographer UNCCD prize

The winner of the UNCCD’s second international photo contest is Chetan Soni, 33. He lives in Dhar, a district headquarters of Madhya Pradesh state in India. The shot was one of a series the photographer took while on assignment from a client to cover the local drought crisis. In a village near Dhar, he came across a girl on her way to collect water.

Chetan Soni told UNCCD News that he managed to convince her to pause long enough with her clay pot in a dry lake-bed to start shooting. The prize-winning photo (above) was the best of the series. For noted French ecologist Nicolas Hulot, one of the five members of the prize jury, the image is “simply stunning.”

Contest criteria According to its rules and regulations, the UNCCD contest rewards “the best three photos that conceptually and artistically depict either the efforts of people conserving soil, land and/or water in drylands, or the relationship between affected people and drylands ecosystems”. Among the many excellent photos submitted this year, the jury determined that Chetan Soni’s work best met those criteria. The first prize carries an award of 1,500 Euros (about US$ 2,140).

More than 1,000 submissions from 59 countries entered the UNCCD photo contest this time, significantly more than for the last such event in 2005. The jury consisted of Maïga Sina Damba, Mali’s Minister for the Promotion of Women, Youth and Family, desert photographer Michael Martin, Jürgen Nakoff, editor of the German edition of National Geographic, French environmentalist Nicolas Hulot and UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja.

The contest was organized in cooperation with the Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Argentina,  and sponsored by SanDisk and Irrigabrasil. The award ceremony will take place in Buenos Aires during COP9, where the winning photo will also be on show.

More on the UNCCD Photo Contest


Business preparing to bet billions on thermal solar energy

Sunrays to steam – The parabolic mirror, one of four main CSP technologies that focus sunlight onto water. Intense solar heat creates steam, which turns turbines to generate electricity

“In just six hours, the earth’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than all humanity consumes in one year.”

Dr Gerhard Knies
Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Desertec Foundation

Electricity generated from turbines driven by the sun’s heat has been around since the 1980s. But now, due partly to a concerted push by German industry and government, concentrating solar thermal power, known as CSP, appears closer than ever to fulfilling its potential as a carbon-free source of unlimited energy – and becoming an important weapon in the fight against climate change.

Driven by a consortium of leading industries and financial institutions* and supported by German ministers as well as the European Commission, the Desertec Industrial Initiative was launched on 13 July 2009, in Munich, Germany. Its aim is to generate sufficient sustainable electrical power from CSP installations in the desert regions of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to cover about 15 % of Europe ’s electricity demand – plus a substantial part of MENA needs – by the year 2050.

Potential gains The estimated Euros 45 billion (US$ 63.4 billion), 100-gigawatt CSP “supergrid” spanning the EU and MENA region could become the largest investment in renewable energy ever. The cost is daunting, yet the potential gains are hard to ignore, not just for Europe but the rest of the Mediterranean basin and Middle East as well. These could include greater energy security for consuming nations, a fresh inflow of private investment in MENA countries and a big contribution to global climate change targets. Moreover, solar thermal energy from the Desertec Industrial Initiative may also help meet three of the most urgent needs of developing countries: electrification, water and jobs.

Poor countries in the wider MENA region could benefit from the development bonus of cheaper, more plentiful electricity supplies to homes and businesses that CSP would bring, especially if extended to remote and rural areas. As for water, Desertec’s solution to the problem of generating steam in bone-dry deserts is that CSP itself would be a sustainable, large-scale alternative to fossil-fuel-based seawater desalination and thus a way to secure the needs of host countries for drinking and irrigation water.

Finally, its supporters say the CSP supergrid could mean thousands of new jobs for the construction and maintenance of solar collectors, power grids and substations, pylons and cable, roads and ancillary industries. Speaking in a short video on the Desertec website, Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, a former president of the Club of Rome and an instigator of the initiative, puts it this way: “50 million Arabs will be out of work in 2050. Can we re-employ them? Yes. Can we re-train them? Yes.”

New partnerships and regulations While the Desertec consortium members aim to set up their business by the end of October 2009, the Desertec Foundation will “work to create a global alliance to ensure security of energy supplies, to promote economic development, and to stabilize the world’s climate,” according to its website. “One of the most useful things we can do is to work with national governments and political bodies…all over the world, to create the right framework of laws and regulations, and to ensure that there is a good framework of incentives.”

* Desertec’s 12 founder-companies are ABB, the German insurer Munich Re, the energy groups E.ON and RWE, Deutsche Bank, HSH Nordbank, M+W Zander, MAN Solar Millennium, Schott Solar, Siemens, Abengoa Solar from Spain and the Cevital industrial group from Algeria .

Watch CNN report on the Desertec Industrial Initiative
More on solar thermal power at the Global Solar Thermal Energy Council

A thermal solar power supergrid

According to Desertec, the largest red square (some 300 sq. km.) on the map represents the entire surface area that would have been needed for solar thermal power collectors to meet the world’s electrical energy needs in 2005, about 18,000 terawatt hours per year (TWh/y).

The square labelled "TRANS-CSP Mix EUMENA 2050" indicates all the desert area required to provide seawater desalination plus about two-thirds of MENA’s and one-fifth of Europe’s electricity consumption in 2050 (an estimated 2,940 TWh/y in total).

In reality, the solar thermal installations would be widely distributed across the entire MENA area and Mediterranean.

Viewpoint: “There are opportunities here”


“From a security viewpoint, solar thermal power, unlike nuclear energy, does not pose a proliferation problem. As for socio-economic development, we know that North African countries are projected to grow by about 100 million people by 2050, so there’s an urgent need to find jobs for the young and to feed a growing population, given declining rainfall and crop yields due to climate change.”


“If it became a reality, Desertec could well create considerable economies of scale with the grid infrastructure and new export revenues for power-generation in the host-countries as well as new options at the village level. There are opportunities here for the creation of alternative livelihoods. Drought created by climate change means that agriculture will diminish without new sources of water for irrigation, so the water-desalination component in Desertec is also promising.”


Securitizing the Ground, Grounding Security; Hans-Günter Brauch and Ursula Oswald-Spring; 40 pages; UNCCD Issue Paper No. 2; 2009. Download PDF. See also http://www.afes-press-books.de/html/hexagon_04.htm



Sistema de Indicadores de Desarrollo Sostenible – Argentina (System of Indicators for Sustainable Development); 4th edition, June 2009; 116 pages; Secretariat for Environment and Sustainable Development, Buenos Aires . Download PDF – in Spanish only
Individual indicators, HTML pages – in Spanish only

Water Wars: Desertification in China; text, audio & image slide shows; Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

US scientists simulate drought to improve water-use efficiency

The Sorghum bicolor genome and the diversification of grasses; Nature, Jan. 29, 2009 -- full text of article
ICRISAT comment on article in Nature: Unraveling of the sorghum genome will help improve dryland crops

Climate Change: The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis – Human Impact Report; 136 pages; Global Humanitarian Forum. Download PDF


Photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand on humanity and habitat – Presentation and images on www.ted.com (as of August 2009, site content offered in more than 50 languages)

Seed Hunter. Writer, Director, Producer: Sally Ingleton; Film Finance Corporation Australia Limited, Film Victoria and 360 Degree Films Pty Ltd.

New publications from UNCCD

African Drylands Commodity Atlas; 82 pages; UNCCD Secretariat, Common Fund For Commodities (CFC), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Download PDF

Securing Water Resources for Water-Scarce Ecosystems; 22 pages; UNCCD Secretariat framework for water policy advocacy -- DRAFT FOR COMMENT. Download PDF

Policy Brief 1 -- Land: a tool for climate change adaptation; 4 pages. Download PDF

Policy Brief 2 -- Land: a tool for climate change mitigation; 4 pages. Download PDF

Thematic Factsheet 4 -- Gender and desertification. Download PDF



About the UNCCD

Developed as a result of the Rio Summit, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is a unique instrument that has brought attention to land degradation affecting some of the most vulnerable people and ecosystems in the world. The UNCCD benefits from the largest membership of the three Rio Conventions and is increasingly recognized as an instrument that can make an important contribution to the achievement of sustainable development and poverty reduction.

For more information: Awareness Raising, Communication and Education Unit, UNCCD
Tel (Switchboard): + 49 228 815 2800   Fax: + 49 228 815 2898  mailto:secretariat@unccd.int?subject=Enquiry from UNCCD News


UNCCD News is published by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany

The mention in this newsletter of names of specific companies or products (whether or not indicated as registered) does not imply any intention to infringe proprietary rights, nor should it be construed as an endorsement or recommendation on the part of UNCCD. Terms of Use

Contact UNCCD News at mailto:newsbox@unccd.int?subject=Contact from UNCCD News

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Editor: Timothy Nater
Design: Rebus, Paris
Copyright ©2009 UNCCD
Photo credits: UNCCD, istockphoto.com, ICRISAT, IISD-ENB, Ferdinand Singh, Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainable Development (Argentina), CARBAP, Chetan Soni, Solar Millennium AG, AFES-PRESS, Doug Beghtel (The Oregonian)