One billion poor people at risk: Climate change and desertification

There are one billion poor people in the world who are vulnerable to climate change, desertification, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, water scarcity and shortage of fossil fuels.India alone accounts for 25.93 percent of this population and China 16.66 percent. The remaining part of Asia and Pacific accounts for 18.30 percent.

In short, Asia is a hub where the poor, undernourished and the vulnerable live. This is followed by sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for 23.94 percent of the one billion.

The other parts of the world are not far behind, with Latin America and the Caribbean accounting for 6.22 percent and the North East and North Africa 4.57 percent.

According to Dr William Dar, director general of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the chairman of the Committee for Science and Technology of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the poor can be made less vulnerable with greater science and knowledge-based interventions, and, more importantly, significant donor support from the developed and developing countries to support this research.

“Business as usual will not help us meet the Millennium Development Goals and much more the goal of reducing poverty by half by 2015,” Dr. Dar said.

Many parts of the world are already showing signs of physical water scarcity—India, eastern Australia, Pakistan, China, Central Asia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, parts of southern Africa, southern US and northern Mexico. With greater demands from other sectors, the water availability for agriculture is getting limited.

“The nexus of climate change and desertification, combined with land degradation, biodiversity loss, water shortage and fossil fuel shortage, will make it even more risky for the farmers to farm in the dry lands of the world. They will find it more difficult to invest in farming, and there could be more diseases and death” said Dr Dar.

ICRISAT believes that unless the livelihoods and resource base of such vulnerable rural communities can be made more resilient, coping with climate change and desertification may be next to impossible for poor dry-land farming communities.

Working over decades with poor farmers in the dry lands of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, ICRISAT’s research shows that a combined effort to deal with current climate uncertainty, land degradation and water scarcity is the only way by which the resilience of these communities can be brought about.

ICRISAT’s research is achieving this through improved climate variability analysis, projects to overcome land degradation and water scarcity, use of improved crop management options, improved crop breeding and a pro-poor BioPower strategy.

With improved tools becoming available in studying climate uncertainty, it has now become possible for decision-makers and investors to formulate a development agenda integrating short-, medium- and long-term timeframes.

ICRISAT’s integrated climate-risk assessment and management framework enables investors (governments, donors, researchers or farmers) to understand better the risks and opportunities, and get greater returns from more diversified and targeted investments.

Land degradation, which is a persistent problem in the dry lands of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, can be further worsened by climate change and desertification. ICRISAT has been working with partners for years on combating land degradation in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. It has been working on programs such as the Desert Margins Program, fertilizer microdosing and Drylands Eco-Farm to help fight land degradation in the sub-Saharan Africa.

These projects diversify the basket of crops and livestock systems, and provide appropriate dosage of fertilizers to crops, to strengthen the resilience of the agro-ecosystems.

In Asia, ICRISAT’s watershed-development program overcomes both land degradation and water scarcity through judicious soil and management practices. This, when supported by improved agronomic practices and integration with livestock systems, enables the farmers to overcome the immediate problems of climate uncertainty and desertification.

Based on its work in the drylands it has proved that farmers can increase their productivity four-fold and profits three-fold, using improved management options, including use of water-efficient crops. There is also high carbon sequestration as a result of improving dryland systems with technologies.

All these activities are strengthened with ICRISAT’s crop-improvement research through which scientists continuously work to breed crop varieties and hybrids that are more drought, pest and disease tolerant

These new varieties strengthen the hands of farmers to deal with climate change and desertification. ICRISAT released the world’s first pigeonpea hybrids based on the cytoplasmic male sterility system. The hybrids developed at ICRISAT have shown 30 percent- to 150 percent-yield advantage. The hybrids also produce 30 percent to 40 percent more root mass that makes them more drought resistant.

The adoption of hybrid technology has been rapid. The yield advantages of hybrids and the ease in their seed production have convinced the seed producers and at present 22 private and three public seed companies have adopted the technology.

In 2007, a total of 250,000 kg of hybrid seed is being produced. This will bring about 50,000 ha land under hybrid cultivation. Using the molecular-marker-assisted selection and breeding method ICRISAT developed the HHB 67-2 pearl millet hybrid, which can withstand downy mildew disease, which devastates pearl millet crops in the Northern Indian states of Haryana and Rajasthan.

When there is no natural resistance in crops to pests or diseases, ICRISAT has been developing transgenic crops with genes for resistance from outside the crop’s gene pool.

Under contained field trials are ICRISAT-bred transgenic groundnut for resistance to the Indian Peanut Clump Virus, transgenic pigeonpea and transgenic chickpea with resistance to Helicoverpa armigera. With the skyrocketing of fossil fuel prices, ICRISAT has initiated a pro-poor BioPower strategy.

Through this BioPower strategy ICRISAT works on generating biodiesel from jatropha and pongamia in the wastelands of the villages. ICRISAT and GTZ have has also initiated a public-private partnership with Southern Online Biotech and farmers.

ICRISAT scientists bred sweet sorghum varieties and hybrids that have higher sugar content in the juice in their stalks. Through the Agri-Business Incubator it partnered with Rusni Distilleries which established a distillery to convert sweet sorghum juice to ethanol. In June 2007 the plant produced world’s first ethanol from sweet sorghum.

The beauty of ICRISAT-bred sweet sorghum is that while farmers get additional income from the juice in the stalk, they still continue to get the sorghum grains. ICRISAT’s package empowers the farmers to meet the present-day uncertainties, so they can meet the future climate change and also reverse desertification as it happens. — ICRISAT/PSciJourn News Service

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