It may take development of the deserts to save forests, say experts, who stress that desert ecology needs to be preserved and enhanced.

“When the time comes that we have to let our forests survive to retain their ecosystem services, eyes would turn for food security and livelihoods to the huge land spaces – the deserts,” Israeli ecologist Uriel N. Safriel told IPS at the Fourth International Desert Forum held in Kubuqi in China.

Dryland scientists the world over are concerned about desertification, which refers mostly to water-related loss of biological productivity in arid and semi-arid lands.

Distinct from natural deserts, in drylands potential evaporation can be 1.5 times higher than precipitation. Unsustainable dryland management practices combined with climate change contribute to man-made deserts.

Expanding at 50,000-70,000 sq km every year, 38 million sq km or about a quarter of all land globally is desertified. This includes 41 percent of cultivable land. This desertification amounts to more than 40 billion dollars in economic loss annually across 110 countries, experts say.

Affected regions are using new and more efficient technologies to make desertified land productive. Israel today is a global leader in desert control and production technologies. Only 17 percent of the country’s land is arable; the rest is desert.

“In Israel, it is said, where the pipeline ends, the desert begins,” said Safriel, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was earlier director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research in Israel and is lead author of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports.

He was referring to the 300-km National Water Carrier Pipeline that transports water from Lake Tiberias in abundant years to be stored in the Coastal Aquifer 200 metres below sea level. The aquifer extends 120 km along the Mediterranean Sea coastline in southwest Israel.

Besides this piped underground storage, the country recycles 90 percent of its domestic waste water to meet 20 percent of its total irrigation needs. Irrigation is computerised to avoid water wastage. The country also makes use of its saline water through drip irrigation for salt-resistant plant varieties.

Additionally, the country has adopted what Safriel calls “a hi-tech detachment from the desert environment.”

Among these practices are hothouses that grow high-value fruits and vegetables for winter export to Europe. These also produce the Haematococus algae in water pipes, whose colourful pigment is used as an additive in fish feed and sells for 2,000 dollars a kg.

So, where a semi-arid region like Australia uses 750 litres of water to produce a kg of wheat, arid Israel uses 50 litres of water to produce a kg of fish – and even this water is reused.

While Israel’s success lies in provisioning of water, China’s efforts in its northern region of Inner Mongolia have concentrated on reforestation and dryland farming.

Situated on its northern border, Inner Mongolia has four of China’s eight deserts. Half, or 60,000 sq km of this mineral-rich region, is desertified today. In the direct line of ferocious spring season sandstorms from Mongolia’s Gobi desert, large swathes of its farmland get devoured every year.

The Elion Resources Group, China’s largest desert ecology enterprise, intends to carve out a 200-km-long and 20-km-wide oasis in the heartland of the 13,000-sq-km Kubuqi desert close to Beijing, in a showcase effort.

The group has planted 1,000 sq km of trees, and developed desert plants such as licorice and salix that are drought-resistant and ecologically efficient.

“It took us a full five years to develop the semi-wild variety – the ‘Liangwai’ licorice medicinal shrub – that could grow well in desert soil,” Wang Wenbiao, the group’s chairman, told IPS.

This greening of the Kubuqi desert has started paying eco-dividends, claims Elion. According to them, rainfall over the past few years averages 300 mm a year, up from 70 mm earlier. The green walls, on the other hand, have helped reduce Kubuqi’s sandstorms to four, from 80 a year in earlier years, they say.

In addition to existing policies on desertification, affected countries need a policy to address shifting sands in addition to existing ones on desertification, Kuwait-based regional dryland scientist Rafaat Fahmy Misak told IPS.

“A third of the fertile Nile delta and 10-30 percent of farmland on the outer boundaries of the oases are today degraded by shifting sand after continuous drought for five years,” he said.

The densely populated 6,000-sq-km Kharga, according to him, is the most attacked oasis in Egypt’s western desert. The shifting sands, he said, obliterate all forms of life and salinate precious water sources.

“Entire villages have been abandoned and people have migrated to new villages more than three times,” he added.

The head of Cairo’s Desert Research Centre, Raafat Khidr, told IPS, “We are fixing shifting sands by growing bio-oil producing jatropha, jojoba and morenga irrigated with treated sewage water. The oil extract residue is used for unconventional poultry and cattle feed.”

Back in Kuwait, Misak has been part of a programme that successfully uses the eco-mat – a sheet made of a mix of river soil, sand, grass seeds and an organic binding, soil fertility enhancer – to combat shifting sands. However, “at two dollars a square metre, it is very expensive,” he said.

Costs, these experts say, are indeed an inhibiting factor.

“For intensive work on mobile sand dunes which involves erection of mechanical barriers to help control sand movement, costs can dramatically escalate up to 4,000 dollars,” Victor R. Squires, an international dryland expert from Adelaide, told IPS. “Higher costs are justified when protecting infrastructure like highways, railways, canals and settlements,” he added.

Scientists also claim that desertification prevention is cheaper than cure. However, wider knowledge about costs of various reclamation techniques remains a grey area. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) initiative to calculate policy ‘inaction costs’ goes some way towards providing clarity on the subject.

“Ecuador loses two billion dollars or 12 percent of its annual agricultural GDP to desertification and land degradation, while Guatemala and the Honduras lose 18 percent,” Morales Sigifredo, a Chilean economist working on the measurement of costs of land degradation with the UNCCD, told IPS.

At the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development last year, the assembled gathering had agreed to strive for a Land Degradation Neutral World by 2030. It may be an expensive proposition, but it is necessary, ecologists say.