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Growing deserts 'a global problem'

The largest area of drylands stretches from the Sahara to China.


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Global Change

(CNN) -- Millions of people could lose their homes and livelihoods as the world's deserts expand because of climate change and unsustainable human activities, an environmental report warned on Friday.

The report, part of a series examining the state of the world's biological resources, was released on the eve of "World Day to Combat Desertifcation," which marks the 11th anniversary of a UN agreement to tackle spreading deserts.

But Zafar Adeel of the United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health, an expert on water management and a leading author of the report, warned that more needed to be done to combat desertification.

"Desertification has emerged as a global problem affecting everyone," said Adeel. "There are serious gaps in our understanding of how big deserts are, and how they are growing."

Drylands, which range from "dry sub-humid" to "hyper-arid" regions, make up more than 40 percent of the world's land surface and are home to two billion people. The largest area stretches from Saharan Africa across the Middle East and Central Asia into parts of China.

Most of Australia is also classified as drylands, along with much of the western U.S., parts of southern Africa, and patches of desert in South America.

The report said that that up to 20 percent of those areas had already suffered some loss of plant life or economic use as a consequence of desertification.

It said that global warming was likely to exacerbate the problem, causing more droughts, heat waves and floods.

But human factors have also played their part, with over-grazing, over-farming, misuse of irrigation and the unsustainable demands of a growing population all contributing to environmental degradation.

Adeel warned that some of the world's poorest populations were likely to be among the worst affected, with large swathes of Central Asia and the areas to the north and south of the Sahara in danger of becoming unsuitable for farming.

"Without strong efforts to reverse desertification, some of the gains we've seen in development in these regions may be reversed," he said.

Desertification has also been linked to health problems caused by dust storms, poverty and a drop in farm production, with infant mortality in drylands double the rate elsewhere in developing nations.

But the problem causes dangerous changes to the environment on a global scale, the report warned, with dust storms in the Gobi and Sahara deserts blamed for respiratory problems in North America and damage to coral reefs in the Caribbean. Scientists estimate that a billion tons of dust from the Sahara are lifted into the atmosphere each year.

While very difficult to reverse, the report said that specific local strategies should be employed to tackle spreading deserts. Alternative livelihoods such as ecotourism and fish farming could provide an alternative to intensive crop farming, while better management of crops and irrigation and the adoption of alternative energy sources such as solar power would all contribute to environmental sustainability.

The first Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report, released in March, warned that approximately 60 percent of the ecosystem supporting life on Earth was being degraded or used unsustainably and that the consequences of degradation could grow significantly worse in the next half century.

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