Pollution, erosion, depletion: FAO is alarmed by land and water degradation

How to feed a growing world population without depleting the planet’s resources? To provide food for thought in the face of this inextricable challenge, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is publishing a report on Thursday, December 9, on the state of land and water resources. Its subtitle, “Systems on the verge of rupture”, leaves no room for doubt: there is “Urgency to act”, writes the agency, because “Unprecedented pressure” exerted on natural resources, “Pushed to the limit of their production capacities”.

The observation made by the FAO is alarming. “Overexploitation, misuse, degradation, pollution and increasing scarcity” : a third of our soils are moderately to highly degraded, according to the UN agency, whose publication completes an already heavy body of work and expertise on the state of land and water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notably warned in 2019 about the intensive exploitation of resources, which compromises our ability to cope with global warming, but also to ensure our living and subsistence conditions. .

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Desertification of the Aral Sea

According to this new FAO study, South Asia is the region most affected by land degradation linked to human activities, with just over 41% of its area affected (excluding desert areas). But looking at the geographic distribution in absolute terms, sub-Saharan Africa alone is home to a fifth of degraded land, followed by South America (17% of this land).

Water resources are not doing any better: 10% of the capacities coming from rivers and aquifers are taken, of which more than two thirds are for agriculture, mainly for irrigation. “The current patterns of agricultural intensification are proving to be unsustainable”, FAO writes. Li Lifeng, director of the agency’s land and water division, details in World these pressures: “Certain agricultural practices, such as irrigation, cause erosion and promote salinization of the land. Today, 10% of arable land is threatened by the accumulation of salts. The intensive use of plastics, chemical inputs and fertilizers also has perverse effects on soil quality ”, Mr Li continues. Effects which are cumulative, and to which is added global warming.

As a reminder of the severity of the threat, the FAO cites, among other examples, the drying up of the Aral Sea: once one of the largest lakes in the world, located between six countries of Central Asia, notably the Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, this area was the victim of massive plans to divert water in the 1960s to irrigate cotton crops, until it became a virtual desert. Salinization and pollution by pesticides have finished decimating the species of fish present in the rivers upstream, putting an end to the fishing activities on which part of the population depended, forced into exile.

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Pollution, erosion, depletion: FAO is alarmed by land and water degradation

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