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Explainer: Combating desertification and drought

Desertification and drought are two of the most significant environmental issues to tackle, and investors have a chance to make a difference.

By Silvia Pellegrino

desertification and drought, SDG 15, women's rights
One of the main objectives of SDG15 is to conserve and restore terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. (Photo by Riccardo Mayer via Shutterstock)
  • Forecasts estimate that droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population by 2050.
  • Today, 2.3 billion people face water stress, and more than half a billion may be forced to migrate to better-supplied areas if climate change is not slowed down.
  • Countries like China are utilising AI to fight water shortages by using satellites and mobile radar stations to predict the movement of moist air.

Climate change and global warming have accelerated the process of desertification so much that it is now considered one of Earth’s most pressing problems.

For example, Africa has been subjected to these events for thousands of years, where the Sahara desert grows at a rate of 48km per year – even though some of this is due to natural phenomena, such as the descent of warm air and low humidity.

However, between the Sahara and the Sudanian Savannah, there is the Sahel region. This land is under constant stress due to frequent droughts caused by population growth, which in turn, has triggered increased logging, illegal farming and land clearing for housing. 

Jens Holtvoeth, senior lecturer in geology at Teesside University, told Capital Monitor: “Increased frequencies of droughts and, in extreme cases, desertification can be observed all around the globe, including Europe.”

A recent example that attracted media attention is strawberry production in Andalusia, says Holtvoeth, where unsustainable groundwater consumption has started to severely impact the adjacent Donana National Park, an extended wetland area and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“While farmers are aware of changes in weather patterns, they are also subjected to economic forces and want to maintain their income. The Andalusian administration will therefore have to draft environmental and agricultural regulatory policies to secure a future for both the natural environment and agricultural production in the area.”

Instances like these are the reason why, every year, 17 June marks the United Nations World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. 

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In 2023 the theme was ‘Her Land. Her Rights’, which aims to emphasise how women around the world still face obstacles when it comes to securing land rights. Investing in women’s equal access to land will be the key to unlocking a prosperous and more hopeful future for humanity.

Forecasts estimate that droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population by 2050 – today, there are 2.3 billion people already facing water stress.

Women could play a key role in resolving these issues; however, they do not have enough power or rights on a global scale to do so. There are many discriminatory laws and practices that prevent women from inheriting land or accessing resources. When given equal access, women can increase agricultural productivity, restore land and build resilience to drought, according to UNCCD.

What is SDG15?

‘Life on land’ is the motto for the 15th Sustainable Development Goal, created by the United Nations. 

The premise behind this is that all ecosystems on Earth provide vital goods and materials for the advancement of humanity; for energy, construction, food, soil quality and the maintenance of biodiversity. Therefore, preserving these diverse forms of life on land is important for the survival of all species. 

In particular, SDG15 focuses on managing forests sustainably, halting and reversing land and natural habitat degradation, successfully combating desertification and stopping biodiversity loss

SDG15 has 12 main goals to achieve by 2030:

  1. Conserve and restore terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems.
  2. End deforestation and restore degraded forests.
  3. End desertification and restore degraded land.
  4. Ensure the conservation of mountain ecosystems by 2030.
  5. Protect biodiversity and natural habitats.
  6. Promote access to genetic resources and fair sharing of the benefits.
  7. Eliminate poaching and trafficking of protected species.
  8. Prevent invasive alien species on land and water ecosystems.
  9. Integrate ecosystem and biodiversity in governmental planning.
  10. Increase financial resources to conserve and sustainable use ecosystem and biodiversity.
  11. Finance and incentivise sustainable forest management.
  12. Combat global poaching and trafficking.

Apart from encouraging investments in the cause, SDG15 also encourages everyone to be more conscious about their actions. For instance, use as little paper as possible, do not use pesticides and actively participate in recycling. 

Why raise awareness of desertification and drought?

Today, drylands are starting to lose their elasticity. This is because they are being degraded by over-cultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices. These procedures also have direct consequences in economic, environmental and social pressures.

Like a cycle, desertification and drought reduce productivity, which directly contributes to poverty. Most of the time, the only viable solutions are over-cultivation, to make up for the lost crops, and land labour, to recover in the shortest amount of time possible. However, these do nothing but enhance drought and desertification. 

As Holtvoeth puts it: “During droughts, farmers need to irrigate their crops using either groundwater or surface water stored in reservoirs. In areas where droughts appear more frequently, agricultural practice will have to adapt to maintain the level of agricultural production and to achieve a sustainable level of groundwater consumption.”

Around the world, desertification and land degradation can trigger migration and conflict, putting an area’s political stability on the line.

According to a study published by the EU, it is estimated that over 250 million people are directly affected by these issues and statistically dry lands tend to have the lowest GDP per capita and the highest infant mortality rate. Between 2023–50, more than half a billion people could be forced to migrate to better areas if climate change is not halted or slowed down. In particular, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are deemed to be the regions that are most at risk. 

There are both physical and socio-economic consequences to the issue that will inevitably happen if more awareness isn’t raised. These include lands becoming less productive; social costs from mass migrations and conflicts; and air pollution.

“At the core of the problem, which progressing desertification is one of the consequences, is a change in weather patterns, specifically, the distribution of rainfall over the course of the year. Generally, a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. However, there is also an increase in the kinematic energy in the atmospheric circulation system, leading to changes in the distribution of this moisture,” Holtvoeth says. 

Ultimately, desertification can also impact climate change. If less water is available for evaporation, more heat from the sun is left over for warming the ground.

In the meantime, wind erosion frees particles and dust in the atmosphere, which form a barrier to help cool down the Earth’s surface. While this may sound initially positive, this can, in fact, lead to fewer rain showers and ultimately drier soil and land. The burning of arid grasslands, in addition, releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that speeds up the process of climate deterioration. 

When it comes to social and economic costs, a report from the World Bank showed the depletion of natural resources in one Sahelian country was equivalent to 20% of its annual GDP. This is only one consequence, but it is accompanied by the rising social costs that countries in Africa are already facing due to people becoming internally displaced or forced to emigrate due to land degradation.

How much investment goes into SDG15?

Since the deadline to reach SDG15’s target is set for 2030, there is a lot to be invested in during the process. According to Frontier Economics’ estimates, 1.6 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and 80% of forests are home to over 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. 

Every year, more than 10 million hectares of forests are destroyed and, consequently, 31,000 species are threatened with extinction. SDG15 focuses on investing in and providing a better future not only for humans but also for all other species and nature by reversing land degradation and combating desertification. 

Thanks to impact investing, billions of dollars aim to sustain adequate investments that also back up SDG and ESG initiatives. Even if there is a calculated $5–7trn funding gap to achieve SDGs, addressing each target is still vital for its evolution. As reported by Trackinsight, there are a couple of ETFs that are trying to make a financial impact on SDG15. 

The main two, totalling $110m in AUM, are:

  • US Vegan Climate ETF, investing $73m.
  • Ossiam Food for Biodiversity UCITS ETF 1A, investing $37m.

The US Vegan Climate ETF tracks the Beyond Investing US Vegan Climate Index (VEGAN) and provides exposure to other US corporations with ESG in mind. In particular, the fund avoids activities that focus on animal suffering, destruction of natural environments and climate change, contributing to SDG 6, 7, 12, 14 and 15.

The Ossiam Food for Biodiversity fund, on the other hand, turns its attention to corporations that are active in agriculture and food production in countries with developed economies. Its final portfolio is spread across 70 stocks belonging to different sectors of the field such as Costco Wholesale Corp and Nestle SA.

What technological opportunities are there for investors?

The global disaster database recorded 487 droughts between 1950–2020 in Africa and Asia, affecting over 2.5 billion people and costing more than $64bn in funds. Many things have changed in those 70 years, like the duration and impact of the droughts, which have only worsened and caused more economic losses.

“An increase in the frequency of droughts has significant implications for local water management and the size of the population a landscape can sustain,” Holtvoeth explains. 

Today, these extreme consequences can be avoided thanks to the evolution of new technologies in the field. For instance, International Water Management has developed satellite technology to monitor droughts and develop early-warning systems, which are also available to governments to use in response plans. At the moment, the company has projects in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. 

This technology, called South Asia Drought Monitoring System (SADMS), was used during the drought that hit South Asia in 2020, not only to map the conditions but also to have a 15-day forecast. Sri Lanka has also used the technology when the World Food Programme and partners used it to produce a climate and food security bulletin.

Overall, technology is the key to solving or at least muffling the impact of desertification and droughts.

For example, China is using AI to fight water shortages through the use of satellites and mobile radar stations. These elements predict the movement of moist air to improve conditions along the Yangtze River. China also was the first to use cloud seeding in 2022, following one of the worst droughts the country had ever seen. Cloud seeding works by using a combination of chemicals launched into the sky by rockets to artificially make it rain, alongside the deployment of drones to drop small loads of silver iodide used to generate the rain. 

There is not one single technology that can be invested in that can alone solve the issues, it will have to be a combination of innovations. With the proper research and motivation, alongside funding, SDG15 and the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought will be the driving forces towards better conditions. 

[Read more on Sustainable Development Goal 15, SDG15]

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