Seven ways to restore land, halt desertification and combat drought

Photo: UNEP

Land sustains life on Earth. Natural spaces such as forests, farmlands, savannahs, peatlands and mountains, provide humanity with the food, water and raw materials it needs to survive. 

Yet, more than 2 billion hectares of the world’s land is degraded, affecting more than 3 billion people. Vital ecosystems and countless species are under threat. In the face of more severe and prolonged droughtssandstorms and rising temperatures, it is crucial to find ways to stop dry land from becoming desert, fresh water sources from evaporating and fertile soil from turning to dust. 

While that might sound like an insurmountable task, it is not, say experts. On 5 June, the planet will celebrate World Environment Day 2024, which will cast a spotlight on how everyone can help end land degradation and restore blighted landscapes. 

“Governments and businesses have a leading role to play in reversing the damage humanity has done to the Earth,” says Bruno Pozzi, the Deputy Director of the Ecosystems Division of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “But everyday people also have a vital role to play in restoration, which is crucial to our future as a species.” 

Here are seven ways to get involved in ecosystem restoration on World Environment Day as outlined in the practical guide We Are #Generation Restoration.

 1. Make agriculture sustainable 

A woman planting crops
UNEP/Duncan Moore

Globally, at least 2 billion people, particularly from rural and poorer areas, depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, our current food systems are unsustainable and a prime driver of land degradation. There is a lot we can do to fix this. Governments and the finance sector can promote regenerative agriculture to increase food production while preserving ecosystems.  

Right now, agricultural producers receive US$540 billion a year in financial support from countries. Some 87 per cent of these subsidies either distort prices or harm nature and human health. With that in mind, governments could redirect agricultural subsidies towards sustainable practices and small-scale farmers.  

Agricultural businesses can develop climate-resilient crops, harness Indigenous knowledge to develop sustainable farming methods and better manage the use of pesticides and fertilizers to avoid harming soil health. Consumers can embrace regional, seasonal and plant-rich diets, and include more soil-friendly food in meals, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas. 

2. Save the soil 

A plant in soil
Unsplash/Roman Synkevych

Soil is more than just the dirt under our feet. It is the planet’s most biodiverse habitat. Almost 60 per cent of all species live in soil and 95 per cent of the food we eat is produced from it. Healthy soil acts as a carbon sink, locking in greenhouse gases that would otherwise enter the atmosphere, playing a vital role in climate mitigation.  

To keep soil healthy and productive, governments and the finance sector can support organic and soil-friendly farming. Agricultural businesses can practise zero-tillage, a technique that involves cultivating crops without disturbing the soil through tillage to maintain organic soil cover. Compost and organic materials could be added to soil to improve its fertility. Irrigation techniques, such as drip irrigation or mulching, could be used to help maintain soil moisture levels and prevent drought stress. Individuals could make compost from leftover scraps of fruit and vegetables for use in their gardens and balcony plant pots.  

3. Protect the pollinators 

A bee in a flower
AFP/Yuri Kadobnov

Three out of four crops producing fruit and seeds depend on pollinators. Bees are the most prolific pollinators but they get a lot of help from bats, insects, butterflies, birds and beetles. In fact, without bats, we can say goodbye to bananas, avocados and mangoes. Despite their importance, all pollinators are in serious decline, bees especially.  

To protect them, people need to reduce air pollution, minimize the adverse impact of pesticides and fertilizers, and conserve the meadows, forests and wetlands where pollinators thrive. Authorities and individuals could mow fewer green spaces in cities and introduce more pollinator-friendly ponds to allow nature to return. Planting a diverse variety of native flowers in city and home gardens will also attract birds, butterflies and bees. 

4. Restore freshwater ecosystems 

A man in a dugout canoe
UNEP/Georgina Smith

Freshwater ecosystems sustain the water cycles that keep land fertile. They supply food and water to billions of people, protect us from droughts and floods, and provide a habitat for countless plants and animals. Yet they are disappearing at an alarming rate due to pollution, climate change, overfishing and over-extraction. 

People can stop this by improving water quality, identifying sources of pollution and monitoring the health of freshwater ecosystems. Countries can join the Freshwater Challenge to accelerate the restoration of degraded rivers and wetlands by 2030. Invasive species could be removed from degraded freshwater habitats and native vegetation replanted. Cities could champion wastewater innovation that addresses sewage management, stormwater runoff and urban flooding.   

5. Renew coastal and marine areas 

Fish swimming in shallow water
Ocean Image Bank/Jayne Jenkins

Oceans and seas provide humanity with oxygen, food and water, while mitigating climate change and helping communities adapt to extreme weather. More than 3 billion people, primarily in developing nations, rely on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. 

To secure this precious asset for generations to come, governments can accelerate implementation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Countries can restore blue ecosystems – including mangroves, salt marshes, kelp forests and coral reefs – while enforcing strict regulations on pollution, excess nutrients, agricultural runoff, industrial discharge and plastic waste to prevent them leaching into coastal areas. 

Countries could adopt a life-cycle approach to redesign plastic products to ensure they can be reused, repurposed, repaired, recycled – and ultimately kept out of the ocean. Businesses can invest in recovering nutrients from wastewater and livestock waste to use as fertilizers. 

6. Bring nature back to cities 

A river meanders through a city
UNEP/Duncan Moore

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, it is projected that two in three people will live in an urban centre. Cities consume 75 per cent of the planet’s resources, produce more than half its global waste and generate at least 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. As cities grow, they transform the natural world around them, potentially leading to droughts and land degradation. 

But cities do not need to be concrete jungles. Urban forests can improve air quality, provide more shade and reduce the need for mechanical cooling. Preserving cities’ canals, ponds and other water bodies can alleviate heatwaves and increase biodiversity. Installing more roof and vertical gardens in our buildings can provide habitats for birds, insects and plants.  

7. Generate financing for restoration 

People standing in front of a mountain in traditional dress
UNEP/Todd Brown

Investments in nature-based solutionsneed to more than double to US$542 billion by 2030 to meet the world’s climate, biodiversity and ecosystem restoration goals.  

To close the existing finance gap, governments could invest in early warning systems to prevent the worst impacts of drought, as well as fund land restoration activities and nature-based solutions. The private sector could integrate ecosystem restoration into their business models, implement efficient waste management practices and invest in social enterprises focused on sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism and green technology. 

Individuals can move their bank accounts to finance institutes that invest in sustainable enterprises, donate to restoration or crowd-fund for innovations that can help save the planet.  

World Environment Day on 5 June is the biggest international day for the environment. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and held annually since 1973, the event has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people from across the world engaging to protect the planet. World Environment Day in 2024 focuses on land restoration, desertification and drought resilience.  

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030   

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and partners covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. A global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration.

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