Our Perspectives

Reversing the “Silent Earthquake of the Century”


woman sitting in a desert in IranThe Carbon Sequestration Project's achievements prove that degraded lands can be economically and feasibly restored by, and for, local communities. Photo: Sadaf Nikzad/UNDP Iran

According to climate change predictions, the Middle East faces a hotter, drier future.

Iran sits at the very centre of the Middle East.  About 80 per cent of its surface is already arid or semi-arid, and the challenge of desertification is literally creeping up on us.  Some have called it “The Silent Earthquake of the Century”.

In many parts of Iran this has been caused by sheep herders letting their flocks overgraze the land.  Sometimes it is caused by villagers breaking off rangeland shrubs for firewood.

Because much of this problem is man-made, it can be fixed. To re-green desert rangelands, what you need is to replant. Shrubs saplings are incubated and watered until they are ready to be transplanted into holes dug by the community.  When hundreds of thousands of these shrubs grow over hectares, this creates a small biosphere which allows other vegetation and wildlife to return.  Such newly-greened biospheres sustain people’s livelihoods in a number of ways.

But, in order for these areas not to be overgrazed again or used for fuel-wood, you need the ‘buy-in’ of the community to preserve and protect them.

I have seen this process at work successfully with the “Carbon Project”, a community-development-plus-environmental initiative we started in the South Khorasan province 10 years ago. Since then, 30,000 hectares of parched lands have been greened, and more is planned to eventually cover over half of Iran’s provinces – concentrating on the 18 driest.

The process is remarkably simple.  If the shrubs and trees are planted with community engagement, the cost drops to one-fifth of what it would be if the government hired private contractors.  More than this, it immediately becomes ‘Our’ project, not ‘Their’ project.

The real benefit in terms of sustainability is that the communities – once the source of the problem, through their overgrazing and fuel-wood “predation” – develop a strong sense of ownership and become the guardians of the land.

Moreover, we have now started to see another benefit as local and refugee communities have become more motivated and seek out other alternative businesses.  It sets up a whole development process – producing businesses, cooperatives and the deepening of social capital.

All of this has been accomplished through a deliberate man-made effort to re-green the deserts and to compensate in a small way for the damage done by mankind.

I believe we are truly beginning to reverse the “Silent Earthquake”.

Read the full blog on the UNDP in Iran website.

Environment Drylands and desertification Sustainable development Ecosystems and biodiversity Communities and local development Inclusive growth Climate change

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