The governments of the world meet at COP 13 in China

- September 18, 2017

By Noel Oettle, Environmental Monitoring Group

This year delegates of the governments of the world will meet in China for the thirteenth Conference of the Parties (or COP 13) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, or UNCCD. The UNCCD was drafted following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, in recognition of the importance to humanity of conserving the soil, which the basis of most human life.

Since the Convention came into effect in 1995, our understanding of global environmental threats has evolved, as has our understanding of the inter-connectedness of all forms of life on earth. We now understand more profoundly how vital it is that all actions to address the problems of the environment and development should take this into consideration: a solution to one problem should not create others. We have also become more aware of the potential for carbon-conserving agriculture to not only help farmers to adapt to a changing climate, whether this may mean a wetter or a dryer climate, but also to capture carbon from the atmosphere.

The UNCCD is a valuable tool for advancing the sustainable development agenda of our country and its peoples, and for this reason our government has drawn up a National Action Plan to implement it across the country and at all scales. The UNCCD recognises the importance of the engagement of affected communities in actions to conserve the land-based resources, fostering ownership by them of the associated ideas, actions and outcomes. These concepts have been built into national programmes such as LandCare, and have borne fruit over the past two decades.
The UNCCD promotes integrating strategies for poverty eradication into efforts to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought, consistent with South African national policy. Across South Africa a number of NGOs work in partnership with government to address the underlying causes of desertification including giving due attention to the socio-economic factors that contribute to desertification processes and poverty. This is aligned with Article 4,2 of the UNCCD, which calls on Parties to ‘adopt an integrated approach addressing the physical, biological and socio economic aspects of the processes of desertification and drought’.

So what is on the agenda for the COP? Delegates will review and probably adopt a new strategic framework of the Convention for 2018– 2030, based on the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Future Strategic Framework of the Convention (IWG-FSF), which has been working for the past two years to assess the current 10-year strategic plan (2008–2018) and recommend a strategy to be followed beyond that time. The IWG-FSF will table the following strategic objectives for the implementation of the Convention.

Strategic objective 1: To improve the condition of affected ecosystems, combat desertification/land degradation, promote sustainable land management and contribute to land degradation neutrality;
Strategic objective 2: To mitigate and manage the effects of drought, enhance the resilience of ecosystems and the preparedness of affected populations, and improve response and recovery capabilities;
Strategic objective 3: To generate global environmental benefits through effective implementation of the UNCCD and
Strategic objective 4: To mobilize substantial and additional financial and non-financial resources to support the implementation of the Convention by building effective partnerships at global and national level.

Although it may seem that these are uncontroversial, there will be some hot debate at Ordos about Civil society urges the Parties to reach agreement on Strategic objective 2, because not all Parties can agree on how best to ‘mitigate and manage the effects of drought’. As is so often the case, this also has to do with the question of who will pay for these actions, and the developed nations tend to resist being asked to take responsibility, especially where the link to the global climate has been made explicit, and those suffering the most are in the countries that have caused the least global warming.

Drought is an age-old scourge for land-based communities in Africa, and in recent years the southern African region has experienced severe droughts, including the persistent drought in the winter rainfall region of South Africa. In the light of the anticipated future impacts of increasing climate variability and climate change, calls have increasingly been made for definitive actions under the UNCCD. In 2015, a decision of COP 12 called upon the secretariat of the Convention to “continue improving partnerships fostering capacity development for national drought preparedness planning, drought early warning, risk and vulnerability assessments, and enhanced drought risk mitigation.” At the same meeting, a Round Table session was held in the course of the High Level segment of the meeting that placed emphasis on early warning systems and preparedness, and significantly also called for “strengthening the link between land and water management measures to manage drought more sustainably”.

Global climate models generally concur that droughts may be anticipated to become more intense and frequent in southern Africa, increasing societal vulnerability. This points to the need for effective drought planning and mitigation strategies towards integrated responses that enable preparedness for future drought events.

It is well-known that land-based human activities such as injudicious ploughing and irrigation and deforestation can directly exacerbate drought impacts. Policy must enable responses on the part of government, the private sector and civil society that promote more sustainable livelihood strategies and actively discourage unsustainable land-use activities. Typically governments respond to the symptoms of drought-related stress, and do not adequately address the underlying causal factors. Vast amounts of money are expended by governments and donors in response to drought crises, whereas the primary investments should be made in developmental activities that educate and enable land-using communities to avoid short-term exploitation of natural resources and to invest in strategies and activities that will result in long-term benefit.

We currently witness mass migrations that are a manifestation of, amongst other causes, drought and resource degradation, resulting in conflict over the diminished and increasingly fragile natural resource based. In this context, which is particularly pertinent on Africa, integrated adaptation to the changing climate and drought risk management approaches that foster long-term development are not just the intelligent response, they are essential.

The experiences of civil society organisations engaged at community-level in mitigating the effects of drought point to the importance of building the resilience of communities and conserving the ecosystems upon which they depend for vital services such as water, productive soil and biomass.

Mainstreaming gender is on the agenda for the COP, and a dialogue will be held with civil society on the topic of gender and land rights. Without adequate rights to access and use land, rural women will remain on the margins of the agricultural economy and will not have adequate incentive to invest in SLM practices. Endorsing the calls for land rights for women should be a priority for the South African delegation.

The COP agenda (15/a/i) includes ‘Integration of Sustainable Development Goal 15 and related target 15.3 which states: “to combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world”, into the implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’.

There is a call for “transformative action” in designing and implementing “bold transformative LDN projects that deliver multiple benefits”. However, the meaning of this word must be unpacked and properly understood in the context of transformation of society, as opposed to transformation of the rural landscape if it is going to bring sustainable benefits to the majority of people.

COP 13 will witness the launch of the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, generated in response to the call for massive investment in sustainable land use and restoration. Civil society organisations that have been following its development agree that this Fund has been structured in ways that are seriously flawed, and may indeed undermine the intention of the UNCCD to foster sustainable land use in ways that are equitable. Although it has been developed with high ambition under the banner and leadership of the UNCCD, the Convention and the Parties will not have any say in its governance, or the investment decisions that it makes.

In response to criticism from civil society, and with input from NGOs, comprehensive Environmental and Social Standards have been drawn up for the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund. It will be crucial to ensure that these optimally applied to maximise the good and minimise the possible harm that might result from the proposed investments. If not, the Fund might undermine the very intentions of the UNCCD to ensure that the lives and livelihoods of the people of the drylands are secured.

The COP will consider a draft advocacy policy framework on gender, promoting the mainstreaming of gender in actions to promote sustainable land management. A gender plan of action in the implementation of the future strategic framework is also developed in this regard. In the course of the COP a dialogue will be held between the delegates and civil society representatives on the topic of gender, and we plan to impress upon delegates the importance of women in sustaining our land-based resources.