Drought famine and desertification
Drought, famine and desertification are related problems of long standing in many parts of the world. The disastrous droughts in the Sahel in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, were only the most recent in a series which can be traced back several centuries. The earlier droughts, and their accompanying famines, passed mostly unnoticed outside the areas immediately affected. In contrast, modern droughts have been characterized by a high level of concern, particularly in the developed nations of the northern hemisphere. Concern is often media-driven, rising rapidly, but falling just as quickly when the drought breaks or the initial benefits of food and medical aid become apparent. When the rains returned to the Sahel in the late 1970s, interest in the problems of the area declined, although the improvements were little more than minimal. Similarly, the concern raised by television reports of drought and famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s peaked at a very high level in 1985 only to decline again within the year. Such fluctuations give a false impression of the problem. Drought and famine are endemic in many parts of the world, and do not go away when the interest of the developed nations declines. In some areas, the return of the rains does bring periodic relief and the land produces a crop. Where the relief is infrequent or shortlived, the desert advances inexorably into previously habitable land. This is desertification in its most elemental form. Accelerated by human interference, it has become the most serious environmental problem facing some of the countries of the earth's arid zones. Climatologists, agronomists, foresters and scientists from a number of United Nations organizations have been wrestling with it for nearly forty years, yet even now it receives less public recognition than the drought and famine with which it is associated. Despite this lengthy investigation, attempts at the prevention and reversal of desertification have met with only limited success. In part, this appears to be the result of misinterpretation of the evidence, and all aspects of the problem—from identification, through causes, to response—are currently undergoing rigorous reassessment. Like most environmental issues, desertification is not just a physical problem. It has socio-economic and political aspects—ranging from the depressed economies of many Third World nations to the civil strife in countries like Ethiopia and Somalia—which complicate the search for appropriate solutions.
Public interest in drought, famine and desertification will continue to fluctuate. Heightened concern, followed by increased financial, nutritional and food aid, may help to alleviate some of the immediate effects of the problems, but it is the steady, less volatile interest of the scientific community which has the potential to bring about longer-term relief.
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