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Swiss focus on global desertification

Humans have turned vast areas of land into desert


International experts are meeting in Germany to debate the problems of desertification and drought, which affect hundreds of millions worldwide.

Switzerland - as one of 187 parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) - has spent millions of Swiss francs on battling the phenomenon.

More than four billion hectares of the world's surface are affected by desertification, which has nothing to do with the expansion of existing deserts and everything to do with soil erosion.

The process results in a gradual loss of soil productivity, usually because of human activities and climate change.

Manmade factors such as deforestation, overcultivation and poor irrigation practices are often responsible, as well as economic and social problems and war.

Earth Summit

The UNCCD was one of the fruits borne by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Rio Earth Summit, in 1994.

The convention came into force in 1996 and is the only legally binding framework in the world to fight desertification, which the UN estimates directly affects 250 million people worldwide.

Switzerland ratified the UNCCD during the same year and spent SFr165.7 million ($127.6 million) on anti-desertification projects within the UN framework between 1997 and 2000.

The Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency (SDC) is responsible for ensuring that Switzerland fulfils its obligations under the convention.

Aid projects

The agency is involved in programmes in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Swiss have a two-pronged approach to administering aid to countries in need - they help the lands affected to implement programmes and also work in direct cooperation with individuals, such as farmers.

The SDC supports projects in water conservation, reforestation, preservation of soil productivity and combating erosion, to name a few.

Andri Bisaz, head of the SDC's Middle East and North Africa section and Swiss representative to the UN body, told swissinfo that life is difficult for those affected by desertification.

"They are dependent on water and water is scarce. That means they have to find systems where they can perhaps adapt to the ever-growing problem of desertification - for a lot of people, it's a question of survival," Bisaz said.

Lessons from the past

In Syria, the SDC is supporting an initiative, which aims to restore water supply systems known as "qanats", which were first created 3,000 years ago.

These subterranean tunnels are carved by hand and enable spring or groundwater to be tapped. Gravity alone ensures a constant flow of water

"We try to help different farmer groups to clean the qanats and to use them. This system is a well-known tradition of these people and they are now starting again to renovate these qanats in order to bring water to their fields," Bisaz explained.

The SDC is also involved in a partnership with local communities in the Sahel region of West Africa. Severe droughts, excessive tree-felling and population pressure have made this area one of the most affected by desertification in the world.

The SDC's strategy in the Sahel was initially to encourage a public forum where local groups could bring their needs and suggestions to the table. Local inhabitants thus play an important role in ensuring that farming methods are diversified and crafts and business projects are put forward and implemented.

Between 1997 and 2000, the SDC devoted the lion's share of its anti-desertification budget to the Sahel region - a total of SFr60 million.

Swiss experience

Bisaz says that, while Switzerland does not suffer from desertification itself, the country can share the benefit of its experiences with others that do.

"We have regions in the canton of Valais, where we have 400 or 500mm of rain a year. Farmers there found a solution, which used the water from a glacier and was brought to the Rhone valley.

"Such experiences, involving the development of a system for irrigation, and more importantly social control of the water by people, are very useful for some countries," Bisaz said.

However, the SDC official said much more could be done to combat the problem of desertification. "You can do a lot of things if you have a bit more money," he told swissinfo.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

Key facts

The UN World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought is on June 17.
Switzerland ratified the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in 1996.
Between 1997-2000, the Swiss funded anti-desertification projects to the tune of SFr165.7 million.
The Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency is involved in projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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