The ominous spectre of Desertification, Land Degradation, and Drought (DLDD) has been widely prevalent in the world, acting as an ecological predicament which jeopardizes life, livelihood, and sustainable development. DLDD comprises three interlinked threats: Desertification ― land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and sub-humid regions primarily caused by anthropogenic activities and climate change; Land Degradation ― chronic loss or decline in ecological integrity and biological productivity of lands due to human-induced processes; and Drought ― protracted deficiency of precipitation leading to a hydrological imbalance that affects land resource productions. Collectively, the triple threat of DLDD not only endangers environmental sustainability but also brings socio-economic instability.

For Pakistan, the ever-enhancing menace of DLDD has risen to prominence owing to horrendous impact of climate change.

Lands are quintessential for the survivability of humanity; however, the poisonous concoction of climate chaos, biodiversity devastation, and widespread pollution also termed as ‘Triple Planetary Crisis’ are metamorphosing vibrant lands into barren deserts, analogous to dead zones. With the grasslands and forests being brutally annihilated, the lands are unable to thrive in ecosystems, produce agriculture, and support communities.

With vulnerable poor populations hit hardest due to vanishing resources, failing crops, and crunching economies plunging sustainable development into the abyss, the world is trapped into a vicious cycle, whereby land use is the source of 11% of Carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn begets global warming.

United Nations Policy Brief issued in June 2023 on ‘Desertification, Land Degradation, and Drought’ documents that drylands of the world comprising half of the planet’s land and home to three billion people residing in almost 169 states are periled from DLDD. These drylands are a source of food, fuel, and burning materials, coupled with various ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, and water filtration and retention. Most importantly, they hold 50% of biodiversity and livestock, and nearly 44% of croplands of the world.

Anthropogenic activities in the 21st century have been accelerating the phenomenon of desertification by 30-35% in comparison to the past.  Statistical analysis from the same policy brief implies that the world lost 100 million hectares of productive land per annum between 2015 and 2019, and it is projected that more than one million hectares of fertile land will undergo degradation by 2030 if desertification and land degradation remain unabated. Moreover, the daunting challenge remains projected 95% of the planet’s land degradation by 2050 if remedial steps are not taken.

DLDD in Pakistan is often driven by the amalgamation of political, social, and economic forces wherein most notable factors include intensive agricultural practices, unsustainable consumption, extractive industries entailing forestry, mining, oil and gas, and population explosion. In present times, it has been colossally exacerbated by climate change. Alteration in precipitation cycles induced by climate change, also termed as ‘Precipitation Whiplash’ is causing prolonged and intense rainfall events on one hand and severe periods of droughts on the other.

DLDD substantially decreases the access to water for drinking and agricultural practices, augmenting the risks of food insecurity, water crisis, and conflict.

It doesn’t merely challenge the enjoyment of various human rights such as the right to life, food, health, adequate livelihood, and sustainable environment, nay deepens the global inequalities by impacting the vulnerable poorest people mostly living in dryland areas.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, it is primarily a dryland country wherein the overall landscape constitutes 80 % of arid or semi-arid land, enabling the livelihoods of nearly two-thirds of the population. Withal, accelerated land degradation and desertification chiefly originating from human activities is incessantly vanishing this vital resource. The country is jeopardized by desertification that has been causing environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and soil fertility, and diminishment in land productivity, which is compounding the vulnerability of the fragile local populace.

With the average increase in Pakistan’s temperature of 0.9 degrees centigrade during 1980—2021, shrinking the Indus Delta by 92%, reducing per capita water availability from 5060 cubic metres to 908 cubic metres during 1951-2022, the predicament of the arid country has magnified. 62 million hectares out of a total of 79.6 million hectares of land of in Pakistan is prone to desertification, notably in South Punjab, Baluchistan, and Sindh. Moreover, the United Nations 2022 ‘Global Land Outlook’ report has listed Pakistan in 23 drought-stricken countries. The co-occurring environmental stressors ─ longer heat waves and severe water scarcity ─ for crop production have been accentuating food insecurity in the country.

They are also causing biodiversity loss by affecting allied species and soil biota. As per the World Bank report, Environmental Degradation in Pakistan annually incurs a mammoth loss of Rs 365 billion equivalent to 6% of its GDP.  The same report attributes 20 % of environmental damage cost to decreased agricultural productivity consequent of soil degradation; 30% cost to waterborne diseases due to poor hygiene and water pollution; and the remaining 50% to premature mortality and illness due to air pollution.

Pakistan must deliver on its SDGs commitments for the restoration of lands and degraded ecosystems.

Harnessing a new national climate action plan, and scaling-up finance for climate adaptation and resilience is indispensable for land restoration by 2030. Through the incorporation of effective agricultural practices and integrated water resources management, alongside community empowerment, the country can curb desertification and bolster drought resilience to ensure sustainable development.

In this regard, increasing water efficiency, furthering soil conservation, and adopting drought-resilience technologies, can restore vital landscapes, Pakistan’s first-ever National Adaptation Plan (NAP) adopted in June 2023 which envisages climate-resilient country is a leap forward in this direction. Efficacious-cum-swift action is essential for healthy lands, sustainable development, and the survival of humanity.

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