Accelerating the global agenda on drought: what to expect in the year ahead

Rear view of a little black African boy walking in the midst of scrub in a dry cornfield in the Sahel region; climate change concept

Following months punctuated by drought, record-breaking heat and wildfires, Caroline King-Okumu, UNEP-WCMC's Deputy Head of Nature-based Solutions, outlines recent breakthroughs achieved at the international level and the key opportunities where progress can be made between now and the next global COP for combatting drought and desertification in 2024.

Rebalancing our relationship with nature is essential to our survival. This is particularly pertinent to the intensifying water crises we are seeing around the world. Last year, the second UN Global Land Outlook report underlined that as land is degraded, the risk of drought increases.

A huge step forward in improving our understanding of the problem came earlier this year when, for the first time, countries used a common set of indicators in reports submitted to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Out of 197 Parties to the UNCCD, 126 submitted reports clarifying their understanding of the interrelated risks of land degradation and drought, and detailing progress they are making to change the deepening patterns of destruction. In recognition of the fact that drought is a global challenge, more of the current donor countries, such as the UK, reported this time around, acknowledging that they are also affected.

Before now, there was no coherent picture of where we were in terms of the inherently erratic effects of drought, ongoing land degradation and desertification, due to the lack of a common global assessment method and baselines for assessment. The use of common indicators under the UNCCD enables countries to map and understand their results in a wider context, and to learn from one another. Indicators, which have been agreed to by all Parties to the UNCCD, include trends in land cover, changes affecting biodiversity, carbon storage in soils, and the extent to which populations and ecosystems are facing drought risks.

From problems to solutions

At last, reporting systems are in place worldwide and a clearer view of the global situation on drought is emerging based on national reporting. With this, a growing emphasis is being placed on nature as a basis and inspiration for healthy, sustainable policy and actions to address the risk of drought. Many questions remain – around methodology and practicality, as well as policy and legal questions about how to create a better global system where the observation of growing risks to communities and ecosystems trigger proactive decision-making at all levels.

Some major and urgent gaps receiving attention through the UNCCD process concern the complex growing global consequences of avoidable disasters occurring during droughts. There is increasing recognition that these require increased institutional coordination through an improved and more coherent global governance framework. The most pressing question is ‘What can the global community collectively do to help one another better address the global environmental challenges that affect the most vulnerable?’, starting with the longstanding collective concern about the impacts of drought and environmental degradation, which continuously animates the global community but yet is still never satisfactorily addressed. Could we be stronger together – and what has been holding us back?

Last year, working together with colleagues, I led a synthesis of policy recommendations from the Intergovernmental Working Group on Drought under the UNCCD, including developing technical recommendations to improve the global system for early warnings and monitoring proactive approaches. This year, the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) has maintained this momentum, supporting this work by engaging with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and national focal points from the Asia region. We provided independent expert inputs to a reconfigured Intergovernmental Working Group on Drought under the UNCCD, and backstopping wider outreach on drought issues within the UN Environment Programme. UNEP-WCMC also brought together experts during World Water Week in Stockholm, to discuss how to boost uptake of nature-based solutions in the private sector.

Joining the dots between drought, land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change

Next week, the UNCCD Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC21), will meet in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The CRIC serves as an important intermediate review between now and the next decision-point at the UNCCD COP in Saudi Arabia next year. During the session, delegates and experts will interrogate the progress made toward the implementation of the convention, and debate the most essential next steps. The meeting, which UNEP-WCMC will support, will enable countries to reflect on how they see the relationships between drought risks and crises affecting land and nature, and how best to ensure the multilateral system is working to enable collaboration.

We need to make sure that a coherent approach to jointly progressing the Rio Conventions stays firmly on the agenda at international climate change and biodiversity conferences. For years, drought and desertification have not received the attention that they warrant, partly because these issues are intertwined with the global climate change and biodiversity agendas.

In May, the UNCCD published a brief, ‘Land Restoration to Safeguard Nature and Livelihoods: UNCCD and CBD Working Together’, stressing the importance of preventing degradation of ecosystems and rehabilitating degraded land as a cost-effective way of achieving many of the aims of both the UNCCD and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework for 2030. It identifies area-based targets shared by both conventions and calls for nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based approaches at the national and local levels.

A new global policy instrument?

We know how to manage desertification and drought, but there are too many parts of the world where this is not happening for a range of reasons, including limited and poor prioritisation of resources, lack of coordination, the absence of effective systems for monitoring and learning, lack of finance and poor integration of available Indigenous knowledge with emerging technologies.

The African Group of Parties to the UNCCD has proposed that a new global policy instrument should be considered to more effectively address drought risk and ensure actions are based on continuous learning and monitoring. At the most recent meeting of the Intergovernmental Working Group on Drought, held in late June, there was a clear consensus that proactive sustainable land management including nature-based solutions reduces the risk of drought. Furthermore, there is no real doubt that triggering investment in these early actions could be improved through enhanced systems for monitoring and early warning, and no one can disagree with the need for this to be done. However, the possible shape and feasibility of a new global policy instrument were hotly debated. The devil is not only in the technical details, but progress also depends on better aligning the broader financing scenarios and political decisions that determine them.

Much still has to be decided on the legal form that any new global policy instrument, such as a protocol or resolution, might take. UNEP-WCMC will continue to work with the regional representatives and other agencies taking part in the working group to support Parties at the UNCCD COP16 in their deliberations on the policy instrument.

In parallel, UNEP-WCMC will support national and institutional partners to take on board nature-based solutions to drought and desertification, and pursue a coherent approach on implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, and the future recommendations of the Intergovernmental Working Group on Drought to the UNCCD COP16 in Saudi Arabia. Regardless of the outcome of discussions on a future global policy instrument to address drought risk, success in addressing the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and drought will depend on such coherent and collaborative approaches.

Find out more about UNEP-WCMC’s work on the dynamic interdependencies between the water, energy and food sectors in our Rexus project, which aims to develop and validate knowledge and tools that facilitate progress in practical policymaking.

Main image: Adobe Stock_490493620

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