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8. United Nations activities to combat desertification

Report from Desertification Unit, UNEP

Dr. Boris Rozanov, Principal Officer of the Desertification Unit of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), spoke of developments following the United Nations Conference on Desertification, held in Nairobi in August and September 1977, and the subsequent endorsement by the UN General Assembly in December 1977 of the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. The Unit, established in May 1978, now has six professional staff and is expected eventually to have ten. Its responsibilities would be to oversee anti-desertification programmes, to co-ordinate these activities and to attempt to avoid duplication.

In order to assist the 15 countries of the Sudano-Sahelian region to deal with desertification problems following the drought, the mandate of the United Nations Sahelian Office was enlarged and its regional office at Ouagadougou has been reinforced. This will be the main United Nations agency in channelling anti-desertification and rehabilitation assistance for the region.

Some recent activities of the Desertification Unit include:
- establishment of an inter-agency working group to coordinate the activities of UN agencies in combating desertification. This will determine the areas of responsibility of the various agencies, the types of action to be undertaken, and the expected results;
- seeking funds from various sources, including donor countries and agencies, and the evaluation of programmes;
- advising on transrational projects, particularly on means of overcoming political obstacles to the pooling of resources. Generally, however, the participating countries appear to prefer bilateral or other arrangements;
- suggesting guidelines and urging priorities in national plans to combat desertification. There is a general problem of slow initial action, both by national governments and by the UN, because of low priorities generally accorded to the desertification problem;
- obtaining the inclusion of measures to combat desertification within the programmes of other UN agencies; for example the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently developed such a plan in the fields of meteorology and hydrology.

Dr. Rozanov noted specifically the problems of the transnational projects, which are linked partly with financial shortages but also with political problems. The project for a green belt in Africa north of the Sahara was already under way in its national components; the project of transnational management of regional aquifers in the Sahara was in progress in Egypt and the Sudan, where initial evaluation studies had been carried out, but was being held up pending the involvement of Chad and Libya; little had been accomplished in the project for stratified development of livestock and rangelands in the Sahelian Zone (SOLAR), or in the establishment of a green belt in Africa south of the Sahara.

The projects for monitoring desertification processes in South America and southwest Asia have made some progress, but have again run into political difficulties associated with the establishment of ground truth and also with the provision of regional receiving stations. In general, greater emphasis is now being placed on national initiatives within the framework of these projects.

Dr. Rozanov also drew attention to the UNESCO-sponsored International Arid Lands Project (Kenya, Tunisia, Sudan). Ecological, economic and social studies are being carried out to serve as background for the ecological management of arid lands in North Africa and in the Middle East.

Training courses had been held on the stabilization of sand dunes (in China and the USSR) and on the control of soil salinity under irrigation (USSR). He saw prospects for cooperation with the United Nations University in the establishment of such programmes.

An international project is also being sponsored on the development of methodologies for assessing desertification on the basis of selected indicators and for mapping desertification, the latter being carried out by FAO in close association with the International Map of Soil Degradation.

Much of the effort is being channelled through the regional agencies, involving the economic commissions for Latin America, Asia and Western Asia. A regional centre is to be set up for the northern Mediterranean, possibly in Spain (Murcia), where the extent of decertified land had been shown to be surprising.

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