On June 17, countries around the globe marked World Day to Combat Desertification. But, although Iran initially raised concerns about the disastrous effects of soil erosion more than 20 years ago, not enough has been done to protect the country’s precious environment.

At sunrise and sunset, the buff-colored sand dunes and deserts are mesmerizing. Tourists marvel at the landscape, shrouded in mist.

But here, the expanse of desert and the loss of green space lead to poverty, conflict and migration.

Forty years ago, Iran raised the issue of soil erosion and the need to control it. Iranian officials called for a regional conference to confront what is known as “desertification.” Twenty years on, in 1994, the United Nations established the Convention to Fight Desertification (UNCCD), and declared World Day to Combat Desertification, which is observed on June 17.

Iran was at forefront of this fight in the region. Now it tops the tables in soil erosion and desertification. It is a victim of a devastating environmental disaster.

The Regional Seminar on De-Desertification and Arid Zones Ecology was held in Iran in 1975, four years before the Islamic Revolution. Participants included representative from 22 countries in arid zones, UNESCO, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The seminar was the brainchild of Eskandar Frirouz, the founder and the first director of Iran’s Environmental Protection Agency. “In the opening speech to the conference,” he writes in his memoires, “I started by saying that we represent 22 countries and these countries comprise the largest and the most populous arid zone in the world, an expanse from the Atlantic to Central Asia. In this geographical situation we must suffer together the inevitable aridity and also the historical consequence for farming and animal herding, which in some areas of this vast expanse go back to ten thousand years ago.”

“In this time, we have destroyed forests and pastures, have inflicted major damage on the biodiversity of plants and — worst of all — have destroyed the soil in our countries,” Frirouz told the conference. “But perhaps only the increase in the population of our countries has made us aware that the we must prevent this destructive process from continuing.”

“Arid zones constitute vast portions of our countries,” he said in conclusion, “So we have come together here to make plans to preserve the resources we are wasting and to reclaim and develop these zones for the benefit of the people of our countries.”

 

The World Joined Together

Desertification, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity, were identified as the greatest challenges to sustainable development during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Then, in June 17, 1994 the Convention to Fight Desertification was established at a conference in Paris. Two years later, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s parliament ratified the convention. Responsibility for its implementation was assigned to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture.

The convention especially focuses on arid and semi-arid regions. Its 10-year strategy, which was adopted in Madrid in 2007, declared that “the aim for the future is to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification and land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought in affected areas in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.”

The 195 signatories pledged to work together to improve the living conditions of people in arid areas. They encourage the people living there to participate in the fight against soil erosion and desertification. In turn, the United Nations was to provide facilities for the signatory countries, including the transfer of knowledge, science and technology to manage a sustainable environment.

Although Iran joined the convention and has taken some action, it ranks number one in soil erosion and desertification. It is estimated that in the decade 2000 to 2010, Iran lost 3 billion metric tons of soil — three times the international average. In 2013, the estimate was raised to 5 or 6 billion tons per year.

In spite of this, Iran exports soil to the arid countries bordering the Persian Gulf. According to official statistics published by the Islamic Republic Customs Organization, in 2012 Iran exported 140,000 metric tons of soil for $23 million as “non-petroleum exports”.

If this trend continues, Iran will follow Somalia, Niger, Iraq and Syria into mayhem, bloodshed and war. Sand dunes are indeed beautiful, but the spread of deserts are not going to lead to a happy ending for Iranians.

 

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