Topsoil loss and land degradation


by Md. Asadullah Khan


The soul-searching observation of a 14-year-old boy from Sierra Leone to the assembly of Earth Summit+5 that concluded on June 28th 1997 is most revealing. The boy said, "In a benighted world, we seem to be sleep-walking into the 21st century without a map or a candle." Sadly true, Agenda 21 pinpointing the reduction of greenhouse gases in the last Rio Summit held in 1992 could not be implemented to give the world much hope about the improvement of our endangered environment. The height of enthusiasm and commitment reached in Rio de Janerio, Brazil in 1992 has failed to meet the targets in the overall context.Reports gleaned from the Earth Summit+5 sources participated by world leaders representing women, indigenous people, farmers, trade union, private sector and youth pinpointed the nation states' failure on limiting the emission of greenhouse gases. President Clinton admitted that the United States despite having 4 per cent of the world's population has a staggering contribution of 20 per cent of the greenhouse gases. He, however, stopped short of making any commitment about future reduction.Other than the threat of green house gases, there are gloomy predictions from other areas. According to the Washington based World Watch Institute, the world has lost 200 million hectares (500 million acres) of trees since 1972. The world's farmers, meanwhile, have lost nearly 500 million tons of topsoil, an amount equal to the tillable soil coverage of India and France combined. Lakes, rivers and even whole seas have been turned into sewer waste and industrial sumps. And thousands of plant and animal species that shared the planet with humans have since disappeared.The land is even under greater pressure in Bangladesh where a population of 126 million crowds into a 65,000 kms of land area. Rain running off deforested northern hills in India has badly eroded the soil and low-lying areas causing flood situations most of the time with no advance predictions. Land holdings have shrunk and are now typically divided leaving only a scant share among the heirs. As the country's population has exploded, the land has been subdivided so many times that the tiny plots that they inherit may not be sufficient to feed even one in family of five members. Intense competition to grab land by the stronger heirs and relations in the family or by the neighbours is one of several forces fanning conflicts and clashes that have even led to murders in the villages. Increasing number of divorce cases, rape and arson springing from family related disputes also point to the loss of income from land.The thought that human race is running out of required land, at the first glance, may seem to be absurd. Indeed, the earth's entire population of 6 (six) billion people could stand upright anywhere in a space of 5,700,000 hectares but the fact is: people need extra room to roam and especially to grow food. Much of the world's land is too rocky or arid or salty for agriculture. And forests that haven't already been cut deserve protection: they harbour the habitats of earth's endangered wild life. With the supply of prime turf for farming so tight according to Washington based World Watch Institute, the average amount of grain land per person has dropped in 30 years from more than 0.2 hectares to little more than 0.1 hectare. Happily, only a boom in agricultural productivity contributed by HYV of seeds, fertilizer and pesticide (against insect attack) has kept the burgeoning population fed.Much of the arable land becomes less arable day by day assaulted by urbanization, chemical pollution, desertification and the overuse of limited water sources. Reports gleaned from a study made by the experts in the field of water resources engineering indicate that the underground water levels in the whole country has gone much lower. The exhaustion of land in some areas in south eastern part of the country, namely Comilla, Noakhali and Chittagong districts has created new class of displaced persons that experts call the environmental migrant. And while wars have always been fought over territory, the future may even see green wars' triggered by shortages of such basic resources as topsoil or water.As a region loses its forest it loses its ability to trap and absorb water, and so run-off from denuded woodland worsens the natural process of erosion. If at the same time, farmers harvest crop year after year the soil is constantly exposed to wind and water. Consequently, the world wears away 24 billion tons of topsoil a year. The extent of topsoil erosion in India, according to S. Swaminathan, a noted agricultural scientist, goes to the tune of 6 billion tons which converted into monetary loss stands at over Rs 1000 crore per year.When dry areas are worn down by the wind, by the intensive farming or by any other assault carried by human beings, the region may eventually become a sterile desert. And that is the fate that has befallen 30 per cent of the world's dry land. Three quarters of dry lands of Africa and North America are in some stages of desertification.To meet the needs of the burgeoning population, farmers world over have boosted their yields and fought against desertification by using heavy doses of fertilizer and irrigation water and also pesticides to protect crop. But that strategy has been counterproductive. Agricultural chemicals may gradually poison the soil, and irrigation also deposits a harmful residue. When the water evaporates it leaves behind various salts. They contribute to the natural buildup of salty compounds in the soil and the salinization process can ultimately render the land useless for farming. The World Bank report in 1993 reveals that some degree of salinization affects 28 per cent of US's irrigated land, 23 per cent of China's and 11 per cent of India's.Undoubtedly, the world's farmers are fighting against all the odds to raise farm production and keep people fed, so says Lester Brown, World Watch President. Brown notes that global grain production has been stagnant for the last five years because of water scarcity and diminishing returns from the use of fertilizer. While most agricultural experts are concerned, few are as gloomy as Brown. Optimists harbour the hope that the prospect would not be as depressing since the world's farmers have kept pace even though the world population has doubled since 1950. To meet the challenge of another doubling of the production may not be so simple. But the prospects of green revolution are very impressive and they include not only fertilizer and irrigation but also new, hybrid strains of crops that yield more productivity per acre. And evidently modern agricultural methods evidently the fruits of biotechnology are yet to be applied on much of the land in poorer countries. Hopefully, the Philippine's International Rice Research Institute that came up with a new strain of "super rice" in 1994 would increase global rice harvest by about 30 per cent.Leaving aside the population boom in third world countries there is hardly any contradiction about the fact that world hunger has more to do with war, poverty, poor technical skill, and poor food distribution than with the failure of achieving needed production by the farmers. And the fact that remains as the core problem and which most people know is that this poverty can often be self-perpetuating rather than self-correcting. So says Robert Brinkman, chief of the Land and Water Development Division of the UN-affiliated Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome: "When people get poor, they put pressure on the land and then they get poorer."With creation of FAO style "bottom up" programmes that induce villagers in using drought resistant crops through modest irrigation projects and reforestation efforts, such successes can be replicated on a global scale. But still the problem of controlling population will remain a core issue. The mandatory one-child-per-family in China has helped the nation to reduce its population growth rate from 2.8 per cent in 1970 to just below 1 per cent in 1994. That means China would relinquish its title as the world's most populous nation to India whose population of 929 million is growing at 1.7 per cent a year. The rest of the world would like to emulate China's birth control success but not its coercive methods.

Source: The Independent, 23 Feb. 2000
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