This Earth Day We Must Start Talking About Desertification

To mark Earth Day this year, a commitment to plant 7.8 billion trees has been launched. This is a timely and entirely sensible initiative linked to tackling climate change. Reforestation is one of the primary weapons we have against climate change and -- crucially -- against ever-expanding desertification, a scourge that affects two thirds of the world's countries and about one billion people. The process transforms once dry but livable and cultivatable land into virtually uninhabitable desert.

My own country Nigeria is at the frontline of this trend with significant parts of the north of the country, specifically the Savannah Bornu area, grappling with the oncoming effects of desertification. Globally, the number of people affected directly by desertification could more than double in the decades to come.

Desertification, especially in Africa, risks disproportionately affecting women. This is because climate change is not gender neutral. In dryland areas susceptible to desertification, women often play crucial roles in land preservation, and the provision of fuel, maintenance, and shelter while men are often away working or hunting. When desertification begins to encroach, it is women who will experience the greatest impact, yet few women, particularly in Africa, own the land they preserve or have sufficient status in their communities to claim it. This means they cannot plan for mitigating the risks of climate change, and this has to change -- women must have more say in how communities on the frontline of climate change can best combat its effects.

An anecdote recently cited in a UN paper highlights the problem acutely; an elderly woman in a workshop for pastoral women in Kenya reported that during a year of severe drought, when forage was becoming scarce, she advised her husband to sell the goats while they were still healthy so that they could get a good income. He did not want to do this as the number of livestock reflects a herder's status. Eventually, they lost everything and had to depend on food aid.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) recognises the issue of women's exclusion in decision-making and highlights the need to take a "bottom-up" approach that targets gender issues and rights-based policies in regions affected by desertification and/or drought. Countries directly affected by desertification have also endorsed this approach. However, we need to do more to support and amplify the voices of women in these communities. It is not sufficient to claim that some communities are too remote and too itinerant for governments to engage with. At the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, we have delivered maternal care services and provided support and information in respectable environments to women living in rural communities and poor conditions in
IDP camps
. If we can find the will to address women's direst needs, then support can be delivered.

One key initiative, especially in countries such as Nigeria, is closely linked to poverty alleviation. In northern Nigeria, and in many other countries, communities living on arid land are disproportionately affected by poverty and are often driven to over-cultivate their already fragile land in order to provide food and energy. Over-cultivation is one of the key drivers of desertification. It is the duty of governments to provide communities with the financial and welfare support they need in order that they not to be forced to over-exploit the land they live on. Since 1998, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and its partners have worked in Ghana and Nigeria to reduce environmental degradation and desertification through the renewable energy systems development programme. The programme builds local capacity among women to develop, operate and maintain alternative, renewable energy systems, using agriculture and human waste to run small enterprises, and to plant neem and other fruit trees. Investing in women is central to economic growth and sustainable change in my home country like Nigeria as empowered women contribute to their neighbours, wider communities and countries.

Earth Day is an opportunity to ensure women's needs, participation and input in sustainability and developing solutions to address issues of climate change is considered around the world. We must remember this not just today, but every day.