On a recent visit to Niger, I met a woman in Batodi village with some very bold claims. Fifteen years ago, she and her fellow women would travel a day's journey to fetch water.
Today, they fetch it from a local well, having turned the situation around by rehabilitating their badly degraded land using traditional practices. In that period, the water level has “jumped up” by 14 meters. Moreover, the village had withstood the severe food and water challenges others in many parts of Niger suffered during recent droughts.
The researcher who had invited me backed the claims that the water table had risen from a depth of below 18 meters to about 4 meters below the ground. That was precisely why he had invited me to the field; to witness – contrary to claims otherwise – that it is possible to restore the health of even badly degraded land.
On 17 June, we unveil the winners of the 2013 Land for Life Award from 137 submissions worldwide. At the national level, Eritrea, Hungary, Kenya, Portugal and Thailand unveil their first Drylands Champions to recognize the local heroes making laudable steps in the fight against desertification and drought.
These kinds of stories, from the ground, inspire me to advocate unceasingly for policies in favor of investments to strengthen both sustainable land use practices and drought resilience. Grabbing more fragile lands to meet growing food demand is neither the answer nor is improving relief delivery the ultimate solution.
Rather, we must boldly move to a land-degradation neutral world where clearing new land is not an option, and, where it is inevitable, our collective target becomes offsetting such action by rehabilitating degraded land at the same pace and in the same ecosystem.
Political contestations over whether a land-degradation neutral world is possible should not prevail for lack of generalizable scientific claims to demonstrate it. Until massive investments in small pilot projects such as these by communities fail, their viability is not in question; the status quo is.
The achievements in Batodi, the submissions to the Land for Life Award and the work of the Drylands Champions affirm the claims of the recent report, A Dangerous Delay – The cost of late response to early warning in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, that “the response to drought was too little too late, representing a systemic failure of the international system.”
Indeed, the international community has been here before; in the mid-1970s, with the Sahel drought disaster, in the mid-1980s with the drought and famine disaster in Ethiopia and, most recently, in 2011, with the tragedy in the Horn of Africa.
But the best evidence that we, as an international community, are playing the world's most dangerous game with drought lies in the fact that only one country in the world – Australia – has a comprehensive national drought policy.
There are more reasons for concern.
Drought affects more lives than any other disaster, yet unlike most disasters, it has a slow onset. And not only has every region in the world experienced more severe droughts in recent times, but droughts are set to increase in intensity, in spread and in frequency due to climate change.
About a billion people, among them people living in the arid and semi-arid parts of the world, have access to little or no renewable water resources. With the climate change scenarios, that estimate shoots to about half the world's population living in areas of high water stress by 2030.
Neither desertification nor droughts are fated, but the path to change is through a radical transformation in our view of the land and attitude towards drought.
Land is a strategic natural asset for our future sustainability. So let us give life to the aspiration of a land-degradation neutral world by setting a target date for its achievement as part of the Sustainable Development Goals to be agreed by 2015. We should follow in the steps of Africa. At its Summit last month it declared this part of its future agenda and called on the global community to do the same.