Brief on the UNCCD Print

This article was written as a Policy Brief for the Science and Development Network
Author: Lindsay C. Stringer, 1 October 2006



  • Desertification first attracted political attention in the 1970s, and remains important today, particularly for developing countries. This policy brief explores the world's response — the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) — considering why, on its tenth anniversary, debate over desertification persists.
  • The brief describes how and why the convention started, what it is, its aims and how it operates, including its finances. The text then examines the role of science and reflects upon the convention's successes and limitations.
  • Finally, the brief looks beyond the convention, and at its possible future. Whether or not a convention is still the best approach to tackle poverty and environmental problems in drylands, political commitment and financial resources remain vital to success.

How and why the UNCCD came about
Desertification was amongst the earliest environmental problems to gain international political attention, when droughts and famine ravaged the Sahel in the 1970s. Since the first UN Conference on Desertification (in Nairobi in 1977), desertification, the idea that the world's desertified land area is increasing, has remained high on the global environmental agenda—particularly for developing countries.

African states proposed a UN Convention on desertification in the run-up to the 1992 'Earth Summit' in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They were concerned at the world's focus on climate change and biodiversity, overlooking important obstacles to African sustainable development.

Several developed countries, particularly from the European Union of the time, opposed an international convention, arguing that desertification was not a global problem, and that its causes were mostly local. But in the final stages of the Rio summit they conceded that local decisions were driven by wider influences (including climate, trade patterns, human migration and technology), and the UN General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on the Desertification Convention.

Negotiations opened in May 1993, between international drylands experts and representatives from governments and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) around the world. Five negotiation sessions later, on 17 June 1994, the UNCCD was adopted, and on 26 December 1996 it came into force. By June 2006, 191 parties had ratified the agreement. [1]

What is the UNCCD?
The UNCCD's principal objective (Objective 1) is to 'combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought, particularly in Africa', so contributing to long-term sustainable development. The convention's text explicitly acknowledges that desertification exists, and that it has important social and economic aspects. This marked a shift in the way desertification was addressed, although its definition remains hotly contested (see Box 1).

A permanent secretariat in Bonn, Germany, administers the UNCCD, organising formal meetings, coordinating reporting, and supporting the convention's implementation.

Every two years or so, the Conference of the Parties (COP) meets. Its decisions are legally binding to all signatories. During every COP and also once between meetings the Committee for the Review of the Convention (CRIC) convenes. Representatives from different regions review progress in implementing the UNCCD. The CRIC reports its outcomes and suggestions at the following COP, and these may then be adopted.

Box 1: Defining 'desertification'

Defining desertification is controversial — the scientific literature holds more than a hundred different definitions. [2]

Most people credit the French scientist Andre Aubréville with coining the term in 1949. [3] He was referring to the human-induced degradation that transformed the African savannah into desert. But later definitions have varied in their emphasis on human and natural climatic causes. And some people use 'desertification' to describe the process of environmental change, as well as its end result. Most agree that it is irreversible.

The lack of agreement is problematic for scientists and policymakers alike, who both tend to stress perspectives to serve their own interests. For example, environmental scientists often focus on lost biological productivity, caused by physical, chemical and biological changes in the soil, whereas economists emphasise lost economic potential. Others define desertification as a combination of both. Some want the term to apply only in dryland environments. [4] Others question whether irreversibility should be part of the definition. [5]

The UNCCD adopts what it sees as the middle ground, defining desertification as "land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities". The UNCCD believes that this hybrid definition lets governments argue desertification is a natural phenomenon, exacerbated by human activities.

How the UNCCD works
The UNCCD views local communities as the main managers of drylands. It rejects what it sees as top-down approaches, and aims to involve these communities in finding solutions to desertification's problems. Giving such a central role to small community groups is unusual for a UN environmental convention.

At the country level, National Action Programmes (NAPs) outline a programme of activities for implementing the UNCCD. NAPs follow Article 10 of the Convention and identify the main causes and consequences of desertification in each country, outlining a programme of priority responses. For example, Swaziland's NAP, approved in 2000, highlights 14 priority areas ranging from land use and population policies, to developing alternative energy sources and improving livestock management. New policies are being developed in Swaziland and pilot projects to improve livestock management while rehabilitating degraded land have taken place in three chiefdoms.

At other levels, Regional Implementation Annexes suggest the focus and content of NAPs and other programmes. There are annexes for Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Northern Mediterranean, Central and Eastern Europe. Countries affected by desertification can follow the annexe best fitting their particular situation. The annexes consider the specific socio-economic, geographical and climatic circumstances of affected countries or regions, and help the Convention remain more nationally and regionally relevant.

The UNCCD also encourages countries to collaborate to tackle shared problems (see Box 2).

Box 2: Collaborative opportunities for tackling desertification

The UNCCD encourages affected countries to cooperate in 'regional action programmes', prioritising issues for joint action. For example, in 2003, Latin America and the Caribbean developed a five-year programme that focused on six regional priorities or so-called 'thematic programme networks'. One of these was to establish an e-forum (accessible from the UNCCD website) on desertification and drought. This helps the region exchange traditional knowledge, as well as share experience and debates.

Countries can also collaborate in smaller groups through Sub-Regional Action Programmes (SRAPs), for example to manage cross-border issues. Africa has developed four SRAPs, which focus specifically on priority issues in each part of the region. For example, the Southern Africa Development Community's programme emphasises, amongst other things, cooperation in managing shared natural resources and ecosystems sustainably. This particularly applies to managing wildlife in this sub-region, where many desertification-prone national parks span national borders. Similarly, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (primarily East African states) has created a programme focusing on managing resources that have shared boundaries. It pays particular attention to managing watersheds and developing a hydrological cycles observation system for the sub-region.

Funding the UNCCD
The convention could not function without money, and party states make both obligatory and voluntary contributions to the secretariat. The funds available for implementing the UNCCD differ to those for the other Rio conventions. The UNCCD's own funding institution, the Global Mechanism, does not allocate new resources to combating land degradation. Rather, it channels and mobilises existing financial support. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), an independent financial organisation implemented by the UN Environment Programme, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank, contributes to new initiatives to combat desertification. But desertification must compete with other GEF issues, and is often a low priority.

The convention expects developed-country parties to make substantial, timely and predictable donations for implementing the agreement. But these parties are bound only by obligation. The agreement is not enforced, relying on countries not wanting to 'lose face' in the international community. In practice, financial support is seldom forthcoming. There are many reasons for this. Some developed-country parties do not see desertification as a priority, as it does not directly affect them. Some give other issues, such as improving rural health services or developing infrastructure, higher priority for development aid, perhaps because these produce more concrete and immediate results.

This lack of financial support hinders the UNCCD's implementation in the very places most severely affected. For example, Central and Eastern European parties planned a collaborative regional training centre to help reforest degraded land, but inadequate finance halted the project.

Scientific and NGO advice to the UNCCD
Despite the controversy over definitions (see Box 1), science has always been crucial to identifying and defining desertification, as well as assessing its extent and severity. [6,7]

The UNCCD Secretariat has its own Committee on Science and Technology — a subsidiary body to the COP. The committee operates through a group of experts from around the world. Ad hoc expert scientific panels are convened as necessary. These provide the COP with information and advice on specific issues. The UNCCD relies on only a small number of scientists relative to the amount of research done on desertification issues. The full spectrum of scientific expertise cannot be considered by the committee, so the views of many experts are overlooked.

The UNCCD also gives considerable weight to other sources of knowledge and experience, for example, the expertise of NGOs and local communities. More than 800 NGOs are officially accredited to the UNCCD, and help implement the convention.

Successes and limitations in implementing the UNCCD
The UNCCD has succeeded in maintaining the public and political status of desertification, providing a focus for otherwise disconnected global knowledge, and in developing small-scale pilot projects to tackle the problem (see Box 3).

Despite these achievements, which are particularly significant to developing countries, the convention has also faced several obstacles, including the perception of desertification as a mainly developing-world problem. Developing countries may have the political will to tackle the issue, but they often lack the technical resources, money and capacity for sustainable, long-term activities. Conversely, developed countries have the resources, but lack political will to invest in the problem.

The secretariat's restricted role is also problematic. Signatories are responsible for implementing the agreement through national legislation. The secretariat does not have the power to enforce this. Indeed, one reason the secretariat has not reproached developed-country parties for their lack of financial support is that it is not the secretariat's role to criticise.

An external review in 2005 scrutinised the secretariat, revealing that some parties think it has overstepped its mandate. One important criticism was that the secretariat had made the national reporting process to the CRIC its own core concern, taking away country ownership of the process.

Box 3: Regeneration in Day Forest, Republic of Djibouti — a pilot project.

Day Forest is over a million years old. Covering 7,500 hectares in the nineteenth century, it has been reduced to just 900 hectares today. Droughts, deforestation and overgrazing have all contributed to its decline. The French cooperation authority drew up a holistic planning project for the forest. [8] At three pilot sites, junipers were allowed to regenerate naturally, and awareness-raising exercises supported local people in sustainable forest management. Early signs are encouraging. The population is playing a larger part in forest management activities, and partnerships have formed between the different stakeholder groups.

Assessing the full impact of the rehabilitation efforts still requires scientific monitoring, and a lack of long-term financial resources threatens the project's sustainability.

This was a GEF regional pilot project in the framework of the UNCCD, co-funded by the World Bank and executed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.


Beyond the UNCCD
The UNCCD is the main international political framework for desertification, but several UN and inter-governmental organisations, including the Food Agriculture Organisation, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, complement its activities. For example, the UNDP's Integrated Drylands Development Programme (established in 2002) helps dryland populations attain good governance and ensures national policies reflect the needs of the poor.

There are also many national initiatives that do not use the 'desertification' label, but which improve drylands, sometimes as a secondary goal. These include afforestation schemes and measures to stabilise dunes, so preventing infrastructure damage. Similarly, NGO schemes to improve rural livelihoods, for example through community vegetable gardens, can reduce soil erosion, and introducing alternative energy sources can help reduce deforestation. Large numbers of scientists are also researching desertification, and these activities do not always come under the UNCCD framework.

But most action to tackle dryland degradation comes from local people, without them necessarily realising it. Activities like rotational grazing, applying traditional knowledge or developing new ways to harvest water do not directly relate to the UNCCD, yet each contributes towards combating desertification.

An uncertain future for the UNCCD?
Ten years since the UNCCD came into force, poverty and land degradation continue to affect sizeable areas and large numbers of people throughout the world. Despite the debate over defining desertification, policy makers and scientists generally agree that land degradation needs to be tackled urgently. But whether an international convention is the best type of response remains questionable. There are many who believe that land degradation, for example, might be better addressed by including it in broader development strategies in poor countries, using local and existing UN initiatives together with other forms of international development assistance.

Whatever the future of the UNCCD, political commitment and financial resources remain vital for solving problems of the world's drylands.

Lindsay C. Stringer is a research fellow at the Institute for Development Policy and Management, part of the School of Environment and Development at the University of Manchester. She has been a consultant to the UNCCD Secretariat. ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )


  1. Johnson, P.M., Mayrand, K., Pacquin, M. Governing Global Desertification. Ashgate, United Kingdom (2006)
  2. Glantz M.H., Orlovsky, N.S. Desertification: A review of the concept. Desertification Control Bulletin 9 15-22 (1983)
  3. Aubréville A. Climats, Forêts et Désertification de l'Afrique Tropicale. Société d'Edition de Géographie Maritime et Coloniale, Paris (1949)
  4. UNCED Earth Summit Agenda 21: Programme of action for sustainable development. United Nations Department of Public Information (1992)
  5. Nelson R. Dryland management — The 'desertification' problem. World Bank Technical Paper No 116 Washington (1990)
  6. Lamprey H. Report on the desert encroachment reconnaissance in northern Sudan. UN Environment Programme, Nairobi (1975)
  7. Hellden U. Desertification monitoring: is the desert encroaching? Desertification Control Bulletin 17 8-12 (1988)
  8. Ten African experiences: Implementing the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Africa. UN Convention to Combat Desertification report (2006)


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This article was written as a Policy Brief for the Science and Development Network
Lindsay C. Stringer, 1 October 2006

 This article in SciDev.Net