Pope Francis' encyclical on global warming was leaked this week, four days before its scheduled publication - just in time for the United Nations' World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Clearly, major world powers, the Republicans excluded, are taking climate change and the spread of the deserts seriously. But the UN's proposals for combating desertification are not feasible, says an Israeli expert.
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The UN declared an annual World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, or WDCDD, in late 1994, acknowledging that because of climate change, desertification and drought are problems affecting all regions of the world. The day, June 17, was marked with various events at Expo 2015, the gargantuan annual fair taking place in Milan this year, which this year, is devoted to food security in a warming world.
The spread of deserts and unusual weather patterns are already affecting food production and threatens to reverse the improvement achieved in the state of world hunger, which has been declining (in terms of the number of sub-nourished people) for almost two decades.
In its webpage on "Desertification Day," the UN calls for – among other things - "action on desertification." Its suggestions include reforestation, water management, fixating loose soil using sand fences, shelter belts, woodlots and windbreaks, enrichment and hyper-fertilizing of soil through planting, and "Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration", enabling native sprouting tree growth through selective pruning of shrub shoots. The residue from pruned tress can be used to provide mulching for fields thus increasing soil water retention and reducing evaporation
"The UN's proposed solutions to combat desertification are not serious," geostrategist Prof. Arnon Soffer of Haifa University in conversation with Haaretz, after perusing the UN's page on combating desertification. "I could see in my mind's eye somebody writing this while sitting in an air-conditioned office with good coffee at the UN. But the advice is not useful."
One drop of water: For man or tree?
The UN State of Food Insecurity report of 2014 study found that over 800 million people, or one in eight, didn't have enough nutrition between 2012 and 2014. That's down from a billion people in 1990–92.
But that impressive achievement may prove transitory as man continues to destroy his own habitat.
"Desertification" isn't just the spread of sand dunes. It refers to the degradation of land.
Cutting down trees and other plant cover, coupled with over-grazing and nutrient depletion due to intensive farming, winds up eroding the topsoil. With no roots left to hold it down, what topsoil remains is easily swept away by wind and rain. Finally all that remains is rock, sand and dust.
According to the UN, more than half of all land used for farming around the world (52% to be precise) is already "moderately or severely affected by soil degradation."
The UN is predicting that about 50 million people may be displaced over the decade to come because of desertification. Not a few, including Prof. Soffer, postulate that desertification is key to the destabilization of the Middle East and the rise of ISIS: The winter of 2013-2014 was the driest in the recorded history of the so-called Fertile Crescent. (We have no information about the winter of 2014-2015 because, Soffer points out, it's a war zone in chaos where nothing is functioning, including meteorological services.)
The question is what can be done about desertification. Man has neither the understanding nor the technology to change weather patterns. Science cannot cause more rain to fall on the Sahara, Syria or Iraq.
But the UN's proposed solutions aren't practical either, certainly not to the war-torn Middle East, where the issue at stake is day-to-day survival, not expensive, extensive long-term strategies to conserve the planet, says Soffer.
Let's start with reforestation. "It could dry out arid areas even more," the professor says, recalling an episode in Israel's history, when the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet wanted to reforest Israel's denuded scapes. Its plan triggered a storm of protest among experts, on the grounds that the trees would take up the groundwater. "It's a zero-sum game," says Soffer: either the people get the water or the trees do. "What is the UN proposing, to reforest the deserts of Mali and Niger? We cannot fight God."
Rich man's solutions
As for water management and desalination, that's a rich man's toy, not to mention a numbers game. "Great gods, let's say we give all our Zionist knowledge to Africa and desalinate a billion cubic meters of water along the coastline," Soffer says. "And what about the rest of the Sahara?"
Desalination is an expensive technology and may be good for tiny Israel, which is about 8,520 square miles in area and has a long coastline. It has desalination plants along the coast. According to a 2010 study done at Tel Aviv University, building a desalination plant in Israel, that produces 100 million cubic meters of treated water a year, is about $370 million and running it costs another $52,000 a year.
The Sahara, to name but one spreading desert, is 4.2 million square miles in area. Talking about desalination and water management in the context of such vastness is absurd, Soffer says.
"Shelter belts – now, those are nice," he goes on. "Israel did that. The town of Or Akiva and Hadera were built on land that had been all sand dunes back in the day. Working cleverly with walls and cypresses and smoothing the dunes and using fertilizer, we won. But that involved something over 1,000 dunams and cost a lot of money. Over 10 million dunams, it's not going to happen."
The same applies to fixating soil, he says: "For that, you need money, and a lot of it. The same is true of soil enrichment and hyper-fertilization."
He does agree with the UN that farmer education is key. Only trouble is, it's late in the day. "Education will always win," says the professor. "But how long does it take to educate? Thirty years, forty, fifty?"
Just yesterday, he relates, he received a copy of a government report on climate change in Israel and the world, predicting warming, with exacerbated effect on the land masses (as opposed to the seas, which react at a lag). "Who will win?" the professor sums up, and answers: not us. "Matters have progressed beyond our power to change it and the UN solutions to desertification are not serious."