Last year, the world met its Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water, five years ahead the 2015 deadline. However, 11 percent of the world’ population, or 783 million people, still live without access to safe drinking water, 40 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

By 2050, another two billion people will be added to the planet, of which 90 percent will be in developing countries with high water stress. In tandem, the demand for water is expected to increase by 50 percent, according to the World Water Development Report 2006. Not surprisingly, some policy analysts speculate that the future wars will be fought over the blue gold. The water challenge remains acute for the foreseeable future.

In ranking the top five global risks in terms of impact last year, the World Economic placed the water supply and food shortage crises in second and third place respectively. Both risks are closely associated with land degradation, but land degradation is not perceived as a major risk for global sustainability.

In fact, the close link between land and water makes land degradation the hidden face of water scarcity: the health of the land is critical in the search for sustainable solutions to water resource provision and management. And yet, land degradation, also known as desertification in respect to the drylands, remains the greatest policy blind spot in domestic and global responses to water management.

I argue that urgent measures to monitor and curb land degradation, and to restore degraded and degrading land are needed. These measures need to be explicit and integrated into global and domestic water management policies. Crucial too are policies that pre-empt or minimize vulnerability to climate change and strengthen resilience in the long-term.

The term water scarcity as used here refers to the non-availability and/or lack of access to fresh water resources for consumption and to meet other social, economic, and development demands. Consistent with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the term desertification refers to land degradation in the arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas of the world. Land degradation refers to the loss of the productivity of the land due to human activity compounded by climatic variability. Therefore, the distinction between desertification and land degradation is purely geographic and not process-based. The end result of both is barren lands or man-made deserts.

The Land-Water Nexus

Three quarters of the Earth is covered with water. Yet, only 2.5 percent is fresh water, and of this, less than 1 percent is available to sustain all terrestrial life and ecosystems. Land is the natural storage for freshwater, but its storage capacity depends on the health of the land. For example, dryland soils are more fragile than tropical soils in part due to the sparse vegetation cover, and the loss of that cover weakens the storage functions of the soil.

Desertification and land degradation processes lead either to a physical or chemical deterioration of the land. The starting point is often the removal of vegetation cover. The degradation of dryland and non-dryland areas is the gradual loss of the biological productivity of the soil, which can translate into a loss of moisture through increased evapotranspiration, exposure to wind and water erosion, and so on.

Agriculture is also a key driver of land degradation. Globally, 70 percent of freshwater is used by agriculture. Some practices, particularly mono-cropping, unsustainable irrigation, and other inappropriate land use schemes degrade the soil further by altering its chemical balance – for instance, through salt build up or salinization. Moreover, water consumption in agriculture increases with land degradation.

Land degradation is followed by the inability of the soil to soak in and hold water when the rain falls. Over time, the replenishment of the water aquifer declines; the water table falls, and eventually collapses. Without vegetation cover, water run-off increases, wreaking more havoc on the land, and the cycle continues. In other words, land degradation leads to water degradation and eventual scarcity.

Climate change exacerbates the situation by magnifying the rate of evapotranspiration and accelerating the occurrence and intensity of climate-related disasters such as droughts and floods. Global assessments indicate that the percentage of the total land area that is highly degraded has increased from 15 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 2011.

So fresh water and land are intricately linked. Action that affects one almost undoubtedly has a corresponding impact on the other, often with positive feedback loops.

Therefore, as Bissio et al claim, every freshwater use decision is a land use decision, and I would also argue that every land use decision is a water use decision. Therefore, efforts to improve one aspect will augment chances of improving the other, and using the land avenue has opportunities not available via the water avenue.

Negative Feedback Loops: Land and Water Degradation

While the Middle East and Sahel regions are particularly vulnerable to water scarcity, the issue is not unique to them. Therefore, their challenges, the lessons learned, and the policy solutions derived from these regions are instructive in our global efforts to address water scarcity.

Drylands are a valuable source of knowledge on the global politics of water for a number of reasons. First, they are fragile transboundary areas that are highly sensitive to water scarcity. Second, drylands are expanding due to global warming, and the heavy impacts of this trend are already being felt by resident populations. As such, these ecosystems provide a peek preview of how the future may pan out, if current climate projections bear out. Third, the impact of climate change is already evident here. The United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Conflict, Jan Egeland, described the Sahel region as “ground zero” of climate change.

According to Climate Change, Conflict and Migration in the Sahel by the United Nations Environment Programme, the seasonal temperature trend of the Sahel from 1970 to 2006 shows the region has already undergone a temperature rise ranging from 0.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius. The outcomes are falling water tables, shrinking ground water sources, and increasingly severe droughts.

In Africa, one third of all people already live in drought-prone areas. Nearly half of all the droughts registered between 1970 and 2008 occurred in Africa and seven of the ten worst drought disasters that occurred in the last three years were in sub-Saharan Africa. Eastern Africa has had recurrent droughts in the last fifteen years and the Sahel has experienced severe recurrent droughts since 2009.

Such prolonged and severe droughts lead to highly variable rainfall patterns, evapotranspiration, and disappearing water bodies, with dire consequences linked to water scarcity. The 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa claimed 50,000 lives and affected 13 million people. Water and food scarcity is the most immediate and manifest consequence of drought, especially among the poorest and most vulnerable populations.

Rolling effects include conflicts around productive land and water, and increasingly, permanent migration and political instability. Without drawing any causal relationship between conflict, climate, and migration, UNEP’s report identifies tensions that have been growing in Niger, Nigeria and Chad between the northern pastoralists and southern farmers as each group moves further and further afield in search of water and arable land.

The report also shows the silting of the Niger Basin, Lake Chad and the Logone/Chari River system, which it links to vegetation loss in the Sahel, where the added impacts of climate change are now evident in the water flows into the Gambia, Niger and Senegal rivers, which have dropped by between 25 percent to 60 percent over the last 30 years. The water run-off in this region is estimated to be as high as 14 percent to 50 percent of the total rainfall due to hard, crusted terrain.

In 2008, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University also mapped the major conflicts in existence at the time and found that eight of the ten conflicts were located in the world’s drylands, from Guatemala to Mexico, Somalia, Afghanistan, and into Pakistan. These are not systematic or causal studies. However, they point to sources of vulnerability among the poorest and most vulnerable populations and to some policy blind spots that are closely linked to the emerging global issues of climate change. Climate change, after all, is about the changing forms of water, including the availability and location of the fresh water sources due to increased warming of the Earth.

Positive Feedback Loops: Land and Water Restoration

Humans cause desertification, but they are also capable of reversing it and restoring degraded land. The restoration between 1960 and 2000 of Burkina Faso’s Central Plateau, which is located in the Sahel region, shows how addressing land degradation upstream improves access to water on site and downstream.

Reij et al found that in the 1970s, desertification driven by unsuitable agricultural practices was exacerbated by drought. To resolve the drought problem, 450 boreholes

were dug up between 1977 and 1980. But there was a decline in rainfall and in ground-water levels, and the boreholes virtually dried up. This is a case of focusing on water supply without giving attention to the health of the land.

Out of despair, farmers, sometimes with support from technical experts, found ways to restore the land and harvest water by combining zai?, a traditional water-harvesting technique, with the use of organic manure and the construction of contours of stone bunds to harvest water.

The results were dramatic in the pilot villages compared to the untreated areas. The water levels improved in wells located close to or downstream in proximity to the pilot fields. Ground water rose by at least five meters in villages that adopted the soil and water conserving techniques and, in most of the 59 villages surveyed, the water increase occurred within two years of the application of the technique.

Importantly, on average, crop yields on treated fields were higher than on untreated fields, ruling out other intervening factors, such as the increase in rainfall. Ten years later, the treated fields had relatively more trees, while vegetation on the non-treated areas was in decline. In February, I visited a region in Niger where this technology is in wide use. A woman told me that fifteen years ago, it took her a day to fetch water for her household. Today, the water is within sight because the water table level has risen by fourteen meters.

Similar positive evolutions have been observed in neighboring Niger. Since the late 1980s, over five million hectares of heavily degraded lands across the Zinder region in Niger have been restored by farmers through what experts term “farmer-managed natural regeneration”. Most of these initiatives were spearheaded by a few not-for-profit non-governmental organizations working with communities. Indeed, it was often only a select number of families that were willing to take the risk to find ways to improve the land to buttress food security.

In contrast, governments and their development partners placed too much emphasis on simply planting trees in drylands, despite the poor results. In general, government policy promoted conventional forestry approaches, especially planting of exotic trees that failed due to the harsh environment, including climatic conditions and pest attacks. And in the absence of government policy, many development agencies focused on their areas of interest, for instance, research or water harvesting techniques. Without government policies to support farmer-led initiatives, farmers were unwilling to invest in restoring land they did not own or to plant trees they could not own.

But the potential of government policy to transform the situation is evident. In Burkina Faso, for instance, where the government was open to experimentation with water harvesting, a wide array of productive techniques has emerged from work done by development agencies and non-profits.

In Niger, the success of the farmer re-greening initiatives eventually led to the adoption of a forestry law recognizing farmers’ rights for on-farm trees, in part following some advocacy by the non-profit actors. A rapid diffusion of the practices ensued among villagers, with tree density on such farms increasing from an average of four trees per hectare on crop land to 33 trees per hectare.

The tide is beginning to turn and is spreading to other regions as increasing attention is given to farmers to protect and manage on-farm regeneration of economically useful trees and bushes. Following a successful pilot of the farmer managed re-greening approach on 3,000 hectares in Ethiopia, the government has made a commitment to restore over fifteen million hectares of degraded land.

How can governments enhance these positive on-farm evolutions? Interventions will vary due to the specificity of the soils and the drivers of land degradation. But in regions where people depend directly on the land, forestry law and law enforcement institutions and mechanisms could explicitly recognize that farmers have an exclusive right to their on-farm trees. Agricultural lands need to be “re-carbonized”, especially the drylands which make up 44 percent of the world’s cultivated systems. Agroforestry, which couples agriculture with forestry, needs to be mainstreamed in national policy for a modern and climate-smart agriculture.

Bringing Land Back In: Policy, Political Will, and Investments

The close association between land degradation and water scarcity is undeniable, and while the policy link between land and water management is clear in the Convention, the association between the political processes on land and water is tenuous.

Many of the international initiatives on water security tend to focus on service provision, particularly in correcting institutional and governance failures as well as identifying nations’ water sources and improving the distribution. These approaches are necessary and urgent, but evidence from the drylands – the frontline of climate change impact – suggests that they are insufficient for the long-term: while the amount of water available on Earth remains constant, the emerging global challenges will require a corresponding robust policy response to make ground water a sustainable resource.

Greater attention to soil conservation and sustainable land management is indispensable in light of the convergence of changes taking place in fresh water bodies: not only are prevailing water challenges being compounded by climate change, but we are also facing increased water consumption due to demographic shifts. Considering the intractable issues concerning trans-boundary water issues, building on the existing regional and sub-regional cooperation around sustainable land management offers some new opportunities to address access to and a response to the growing demand for fresh water.

For instance, Eastern African has made commendable advances in water cooperation under the sub-regional action program to combat desertification. And Ethiopia, a major watershed area for the river Nile, has made proactive commitments to scale up and mainstream agroforestry and land rehabilitation schemes. Together, these activities would improve freshwater resources availability in this region, and begin to build bridges to address issues that cannot be dealt with otherwise.

The UNCCD, as the sole legally-binding agreement with a focus on combatting desertification, land degradation, and drought, provides the water community with mechanisms to address some of its water policy concerns, including water degradation, pollution and harvesting by focusing on improving the land use practices that could be applied not just in the drylands, but globally.

The water community’s expertise is also needed in transcending other challenges. The UNCCD’s mandate is primarily the drylands. Although the land degradation legacy is evident here, globally, land degradation is accelerating the most in non-dryland areas, which is likely to affect water availability in future. According to the 2008 Global Assessment of Land Degradation, 78 percent of the degrading land between 1981 and 2006 lay outside the drylands.

Since the UNCCD entered into force in 1996, 168 of the 195 country parties have declared that they are affected by desertification. But with over 100 UNCCD parties having elaborated a National Action Program (NAP) in order to address various forms of land degradation, it is possible to strengthen water harvesting and storage in many countries and landscapes. Yet in spite of the progress made to streamline practice through these programs, the political will to mainstream them in policy is lacking. Only eleven NAPs are currently mainstreamed in national development policies.

Perhaps more important are the sub-regional and regional action programs that have the transboundary scope needed for cooperation on land degradation. By mainstreaming policies at national, sub-regional, and regional levels, the international community could make big policy strides in addressing water scarcity.

Strengthening the scientific basis of the UNCCD is also essential in advancing sustainable land management policy. The recent review of the economics of desertification revealed that a comprehensive analysis of the economic costs of land degradation and desertification and the benefits of sustainable land management remain largely unknown. However, it concluded that land degradation is also driven by market failure and recommended that policies at all levels should aim at making the private sector a part of the solution. Marked-based information on investments opportunities and win-win benefits of sustainable land management will be essential to advance related private investments.

Lastly, governments do not respond to slow-moving crises, a key factor in the limited response given to land degradation and drought. Effective science knowledge and information sharing, including traditional practices related to sustainable land management and rehabilitation, are crucial to win the battle.

The renewed and growing interest in land and soil restoration offers hope. A global soil partnership, supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, was launched this year to draw attention to soil protection and management in agriculture.

Last year, at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (or Rio+20), the international community undertook to develop a land-degradation neutral world with a view to curbing desertification and land degradation, and promoting land restoration. The operationalization of such a vision could lead to a holistic framework offering lasting solutions by restoring landscapes. This may be advanced as sustainable development goals are developed. The Conference also agreed on action to globally monitor land degradation and to step up restoration efforts for the drylands.

All this is good news, and moves us in the direction of addressing our past failures. Failure to integrate and mainstream our responses will see a vicious and persistent cycle of land degradation and water scarcity. Bringing the land policy back into the global development agenda, with a people-centered and landscape perspective built into it, is a vital part of that response, as is building partnerships with the policy actors on the water front. Political dialogue on issues of watershed management remain problematic, but collective action around the threats of land degradation and drought provide some scope for action that could strengthen action on watershed management in many countries.

Current international efforts to formulate a sound post-2015 Development Agenda are another opportunity to build on the positive achievements observed in land restoration and to correct past global policy omissions and shortcomings on water. To do so, strong political will is needed to bring the sustainable land use agenda back into the global development platform. International cooperation is still largely-driven by nation-states. But sound, policy-oriented science that is supported through a coordinated and targeted advocacy by powerful civil society organizations and directed at some of the most powerful global economies can still turn the tide. With their power, the water advocates can augment the current momentum.