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[Contribution] Korea offers solutions to combat desertification, drought

June 16, 2024 - 10:01 By Korea Herald
Nam Sung-hyun, Minister of the Korea Forest Service

By Nam Sung-hyun

Minister of the Korea Forest Service

Desertification is happening all around the world. According to the "World Atlas of Desertification" released by the European Commission, desertification is underway in 75 percent of the Earth's land area, and a grim prospect looms, in which over 90 percent of the land area will be degraded by 2050. United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification statistics (2023) reveal that more than 100 million hectares of healthy and productive land were degraded annually between 2015 and 2019, and the scientific journal Nature reports that 15 billion trees are lost each year.

Asia's desertification rate is 37 percent, exceeding Africa's 32 percent. Desertification is occurring in approximately 77 percent of Mongolia's territory and 27 percent of China's land area. Desertification of the Earth is not just the story of our neighbors. The desertification in Mongolia and China produces sand and dust storms (SDS), as well as fine dust, causing abnormal weather patterns that strike the Korean Peninsula, already significantly impacting our daily lives.

SDS irritate the eyes and skin, causing allergic reactions. Heavy metals and harmful chemicals contained in the SDS accumulate in the body, increasing the risk of serious diseases such as cardiovascular diseases in the long run. The government recommends that people refrain from outdoor activities by issuing a warning alert when SDS occur.

The primary causes of Earth's desertification are human activities destroying forests. Ninety percent of deforestation occurs in the process of expanding agricultural lands, while 7 percent occurs during palm oil production. This abuse and excessive development of the planet driven by human greed leads to a vicious cycle in which the climate crisis is accelerated, desertification is exacerbated and ultimately the soil ecosystem and the foundation of food production are destroyed.

To escape from this vicious cycle and change this trend, a benevolent external force is needed to counter the external force of greed. Planting trees and cultivating forests are precisely the benevolent and scientific influence we need. To prevent desertification, it is just as important to maintain a stable environment in the long term as it is to plant many trees in order for such planted trees to grow healthily. And this requires differentiated reforestation techniques to be applied according to the local natural environment and culture.

The Republic of Korea has accumulated valuable experience in successful reforestation over the past half-century. We have completely restored the barren land that accounted for half of the country's national territory after the Korean War. Now, we not only aim for quantitative growth in which we plant many trees, but we also pursue the development of science technologies to cultivate forests to be healthier and more valuable.

For instance, through proper forest care including thinning and pruning, we can induce the development of understory vegetation that enriches biodiversity and removes forest fuels to reduce the risk of forest fires. Promoting the growth of roots so that they can work as webs or piles supporting surrounding soils creates forests resilient to disasters such as soil erosion and fires.

Moreover, forests are exemplary carbon sinks for achieving carbon neutrality and a nature-based solution to climate change, which is why forest management holds value beyond preventing desertification and land degradation.

June 17 is the "World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought" designated by the United Nations. The UNCCD is one of the three major environmental conventions of the world along with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The UNCCD was adopted on June 17, 1994 to prevent desertification due to climate change, forest degradation and other factors. The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought was designated to commemorate the adoption of the UNCCD, raise awareness of the severity of desertification, and promote international cooperation to combat desertification.

In line with the "Changwon Initiative" adopted at the 10th Conference of the Parties of the UNCCD, hosted by the Republic of Korea in 2011, the Korea Forest Service has carried out afforestation demonstration projects in 16 arid countries, including Mongolia and Ghana, since 2012. These projects have demonstrated that tree planting can contribute to both desertification prevention and the improvement of local community livelihoods. In recognition of its achievements, the project was awarded the "Partnership Award" from the UNCCD last year, the first of its kind in the world. In collaboration with the UNCCD, the Korea Forest Service is also strengthening forestry cooperation activities in Northeast Asia and Africa to prevent desertification and land degradation.

We hope that our accumulated afforestation experience and technology in tree planting and forest management will be the scientific and benevolent influence that creates healthy land and ecosystems, becoming iconic property of the Republic of Korea.

Nam Sung-hyun is the minister of the Korea Forest Service. The views expressed in this column are his own. – Ed.