Desertification is Important Factor in Darfur Crisis

This year’s World Environment Day theme, “Deserts and Desertification,” celebrates the unique biological, ecological and cultural characteristics of the world’s dryland regions. Commemorated today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the event also aims to raise awareness of the problems associated with desertification, or the degradation of dryland areas. While desertification affects roughly one-third of the Earth’s land surface, it is posing particularly serious challenges in the arid and politically unstable Darfur region of western Sudan.

According to a 2004 UNEP assessment, the scarcity of water and fertile land in Darfur has long been a source of conflict between farmers and nomadic groups. In 2003, rising resource tensions as well as ethnic, cultural, and religious differences triggered an insurgence by rebel groups, provoking a government crackdown that has resulted in widespread violence and the deaths of an estimated 450,000 people. In a May 5 address at The George Washington University in Washington D.C., UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed the need for international cooperation “to help the people of Darfur, whose human rights have been violated in the most appalling way."

Historically, farming and livestock grazing have been among the leading causes of desertification in Darfur, but now refugee camps too are contributing to the loss of already scarce vegetation. Family members, dependent on firewood to cook their food, are being forced to venture farther from the camps to find sparse fuel, putting them at greater risk for attack by the government-backed Janjaweed militia.

To alleviate conditions, Refugees International, a humanitarian assistance organization, is helping to train refugees in the construction of fuel-efficient stoves made from water, dirt, and grass or animal dung, which reduces the number of trips into unsafe areas and stems fuelwood-related desertification. In addition, UNEP proposes creating more options for livelihoods within refugee camps, such as skill-building and setting up a wage labor system for camp management activities. On a grander scale, UNEP supports preserving vegetation, planting trees, adopting organic farming techniques, and harvesting rainwater to prevent desertification.

For More Information:
Several international groups have launched campaigns to convince world leaders to demand an end to the genocide in Darfur. Key websites include the Save Darfur Coalition, Refugees International, International Crisis Group, and Amnesty International.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.