Brian Stewart: The strategic importance of a 'talkfest' on drought

It makes no sense for Canada to walk away from the UN Convention on Drought and Desertification, Brian Stewart writes. This is one of the best intelligence-sharing forums for a global problem that is likely only going to get worse.

No logic or gain in Canada abandoning UN Convention on Drought and Desertification

A farmer carries buckets past a partially dried-up pond in China's Sichuan province last month. A drought, now in its fourth year, has affected about 23.7 million people in Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan provinces. (Reuters)

To grasp just how dangerous droughts are, consider that, according to the top UN disaster experts, there's simply nothing bigger "in terms of human mortality." Not even famine or flooding.

When drought combined with famine and social unrest in Ethiopia in 1984-85, a million people died within weeks.

Drought prevention ranks up there with nuclear safety as, well, super important.

Consider, too, that even more droughts are likely these days now that 168 countries — including large, populated ones like the U.S., Russia and China — face the growing desertification of arid lands.

What that means is that there is much for the world's climatologists, along with agricultural, water resource, irrigation, population and disaster relief experts (to name but a few), to talk about urgently as they compare the latest research.

Yet it's just such a "talkfest," Foreign Minister John Baird's term, that the Conservative government denounced with contempt, as Canada became the first nation to abandon the UN Convention to Combat Desertification across the globe.

The reason given — that the convention is too bureaucratic because it spends too little on direct programming — is astonishing in itself.

For the UNCCD is not meant to be "a programming department" like the World Food Program, which runs scores of direct aid operations to countries in need.

Instead, it's more of a global intelligence effort to coordinate and make coherent the best international thinking on a profoundly dangerous threat.

Given the stakes, who wouldn't want direct access to that kind of intelligence?

Too much talk?

Other governments seem to believe more of this kind of talk is needed right now. Especially as the most common criticism usually leveled at international aid and development efforts is that donors have acted with too little prior study and strategic analysis or coordination, i.e. talk.

Ever notice how the same voices that are the most vocal in condemning UN agencies for jumping into half-baked aid efforts also like to flay it for consulting too long?

In this case, Ottawa is offended by too much talking about drought. So it won't maintain its annual UNCCD contribution of $350,000 — the equivalent of some senator's individual travel budget — or go to hear more yak-yak at the upcoming UN drought conference in Germany.

That's a three-day marathon of hearings to try to pin down how much can be done to mitigate coming droughts and desertification. 

This seems like a very strange head-in-the-sand approach. What government doesn't want to know what dangers are out there?

In 2008, Britain's MI6 intelligence service famously warned the U.K. government about the developing global food crisis, caused in large part by drought-blasted harvests, and noted that these shortages had more potential than terrorism or regional wars to destabilize the world.

Indeed, in the months that followed, at least 61 countries suffered food hoarding and severe food riots across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

In just 20 months, the world's three key staples — wheat, maize and rice — soared to peaks not seen in decades.

Uncertainty prevails

Today, intelligence agencies across the world watch nervously for signs of crop shortages in already arid farmlands where new droughts may flare up.

The danger is heightened by the extraordinary complexity of weather and soil conditions. We simply don't fully understand all that we're dealing with, which is why these "talkfests" can be useful.

Consider that 44 per cent of all cultivated fields — essentially the world's breadbaskets — are in dry lands where the moisture supply is often uncertain. One in three of the world's population — 2.1 billion people — live precariously in areas that are borderline deserts.

Desertification, the handmaiden of drought, is caused by a combination of severe weather and over-intensive farming, which depletes soil nutrients.

According to UN studies, farm and cattle lands are being degraded at 30 to 35 times the historical rate.

This can't go on. Yet how do we stop it? That's the essential question.

For in order to handle global population growth of an anticipated two billion more people by 2050, it's estimated that we will have to grind out 70 per cent more food from the same hard-worked farm lands, a push that threatens further desertification and drought.

Populations on the move

Ottawa has answered criticism of its no-show decision at the desertification conference by boasting of its own programs to bring clear drinking water and sanitation to millions of people in several African nations.

I've seen some of these results over the years and know it's a laudable initiative, deserving of praise.

But the UN drought convention that we have just abandoned addresses a global threat on an incomparably larger canvas, one spanning continents.

Its mandate is to gather the best scientific evidence and experts available to formulate a full worldwide campaign to try to reverse the effects of desertification on every continent.

It will be enormously complex, because desertification is caused by so many different factors in very different places. Only a full multinational effort stands much chance of success.

Among the challenges: understanding the root of severe weather changes, introducing new tillage methods in tribal areas that have farmed the same way for millennia, finding new breeds of cattle raised in grasslands that are less destructive of topsoil and more immune to dry spells.

There must also be new seeds, as well as new irrigation and water collection methods brought to millions.

And while this kind of technical research is going on, social unrest must be addressed and regional disputes over scarce water resources handled before large populations simply leave and shift to new urban centres, causing a different sort of problem.

Canadians too often think of drought as an African phenomenon.

But global food markets have been shaken in recent years by droughts in Russia, the Ukraine, India, Pakistan, China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Australia, Brazil, Morocco and Spain.

And last summer, right on our doorstep, an extraordinary heat wave saw the U.S. Midwest suffer its worst drought in 56 years, provoking water shortages in a dozen states, loss of livestock and more nervousness on global food exchanges.

Critics have frequently blasted Ottawa for showing a lack of curiosity in many fields, from census findings to areas of scientific research.

Still, one would have thought that normal self-interest in a stable world — particularly an agriculturally stable world — would force the Harper government to want to know as much as it could about global threats like desertification.

Even if it comes at the high price of having to listen to others talk.