All eyes on Drought Conference

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The world’s eyes will be fixed on Namibia from May 11 to 15 when the country plays host to the African Drought Conference.

The conference under the theme, Enhancing resilience to drought events on the African Continent, will underline the fact that Africa is highly vulnerable to drought events with around one-third of the population living in drought-prone areas and 97% of agriculture being rain-fed. Drought events have devastating economic, environment and social impacts in terms of loss of human life, food insecurity, reduced agricultural productivity, degradation of natural resources. Namibia is the driest country south of the Sahara and is currently suffering the effects of another drought. It will also emphasise the fact that poverty cannot be eradicated without restoring the earth’s natural systems, as explained in Lester Brown’s recent publication “Plan B 4.0”.

The conference under the theme, Enhancing resilience to drought events on the African Continent, will underline the fact that Africa is highly vulnerable to drought events with around one-third of the population living in drought-prone areas and 97% of agriculture being rain-fed. Drought events have devastating economic, environment and social impacts in terms of loss of human life, food insecurity, reduced agricultural productivity, degradation of natural resources. Namibia is the driest country south of the Sahara and is currently suffering the effects of another drought. It will also emphasise the fact that poverty cannot be eradicated without restoring the earth’s natural systems, as explained in Lester Brown’s recent publication “Plan B 4.0”.

Brown says on the supply side, several environmental and resource trends are making it more difficult to expand food production fast enough. Among the ongoing ones are soil erosion, aquifer depletion, crop-shrinking heat waves, melting ice sheets and rising sea level, and the melting of the mountain glaciers that feed major rivers and irrigation systems. “In addition, three resource trends are affecting our food supply: the loss of cropland to non-farm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, and the coming reduction in oil supplies,” Brown remarks.

The author says the first trend of concern is population growth. Each year there are 79 million more people at the dinner table. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of these individuals are being added in countries where soils are eroding, water tables are falling, and irrigation wells are going dry. If we cannot get the brakes on population growth, we may not be able to eradicate hunger.

“Even as population numbers are multiplying, some three billion people are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain intensive livestock products. At the top of the food chain ranking are the United States and Canada, where people consume on average 800 kilogrammes of grain per year, most of it indirectly as beef, pork, poultry, milk, and eggs. Near the bottom of this ranking is India, where people have less than 200 kilogrammes of grain each, and thus must consume nearly all of it directly, leaving little for conversion into animal protein.

“Beyond this, the owners of the world’s 910 million automobiles want to maintain their mobility, and most are not particularly concerned about whether their fuel comes from an oil well or a corn field,” Brown notes.
Turning to the supply-side constraints, he says soil erosion is currently lowering

the inherent productivity of some 30 percent of the world’s cropland. In some countries, such as Lesotho and Mongolia, it has reduced grain production by half or more over the last three decades. From mid-2006 to mid-2008, world prices of wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans roughly tripled, reaching historic highs. It was not until the global economic crisis beginning in 2008 that grain “As a result of persistently high food prices, hunger is spreading. One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to reduce hunger and malnutrition. In the mid-1990s, the number of people in this category had fallen to 825 million. But instead of continuing to decline, the number of hungry started to edge upward, reaching 915 million at the end of 2008. It then jumped to over 1 billion in 2009. With business as usual, I see a combination of the projected growth in population, the planned diversion of grain to produce fuel for cars, spreading shortages of irrigation water, and other trends combining to push the number of hungry people to 1.2 billion or more by the end of 2015.

“Rising food prices and the swelling ranks of the hungry are among the early signs of a tightening world food situation. At a time when progress is seen as almost inevitable, this recent reversal on the food front is a disturbing setback. More and more, food is looking like the weak link in our civilization.
As the world struggles to feed all its people, farmers are facing several trying trends. On the demand side of the food equation are three consumption-boosting trends: population growth, the growing consumption of grain-based animal protein, and, most recently, the massive use of grain to fuel cars.

Farmers are losing cropland and irrigation water to nonfarm uses. The conversion of cropland to other uses looms large in China, India, and the United States.

Saharan Africa, northern China, western Mongolia, and Central Asia remind us that the loss of topsoil is continuing.
“The bottom line is that harvest-expanding scientific advances are ever more difficult to come productivity, which ultimately will determine its human carrying capacity.

One of the little noticed characteristics of land acquisitions is that they are also water acquisitions. Whether the land is rain fed or irrigated, it represents a claim on the water resources in the host country, Brown concludes.

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