(CN) – The growing threat of desertification and its effects on European land, especially in the Mediterranean regions, are being poorly monitored and prepared for by the European Commission, according a new audit by an EU watchdog agency.
The warning comes in a December report by the European Court of Auditors, a European Union body that acts like a government accountability office in the U.S.
The report noted that in the past decade the areas of Europe at risk of desertification expanded by about 68,000 square miles, or an area roughly the size of Greece and Slovakia combined. The audit cited mapping of desertification by the European Environment Agency.
Desertification is the process whereby land that was dry or semi-dry becomes so infertile as to become virtually desert. The chief causes are drought, grazing, bad farming techniques, human development, wild fires and the warming of the planet due to climate change.
“We are seeing an increase in droughts, aridity and risk of desertification due to climate change in the EU,” Phil Wynn Owen, a member of the team of auditors who did the report, said in a statement.
The report criticized the European Commission for not seeming to take the risk from desertification and climate change more seriously.
“There is no specific EU strategy aimed at addressing desertification and land degradation,” the report said.
In a response to the audit, the European Commission pledged to soon begin studying the matter more closely. It did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment Wednesday from Courthouse News.
The report comes as the EU presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker, a conservative from Luxembourg, comes to an end. His term expires in November, after Europeans participate in highly watched elections in May. A new president will be chosen by the new Parliament.
In a way, desertification was a defining, though mostly unspoken, factor in Juncker’s five-year term as the head of the European Union. Since taking office in 2014, Juncker has dealt with what has become a top issue in European politics: Mass immigration from Africa and Asia, where the heating planet’s problems are felt much more keenly.
For the past decade, Europe has seen an increasing number of people from Africa and Asia seek entry into Europe as refugees and asylum-seekers, often because they are fleeing places hit hard by climate change and increasing heat, experts say.
“Desertification can bring about poverty, health problems due to wind-blown dust, and a decline in biodiversity. It can also have demographic and economic consequences, forcing people to migrate away from affected areas,” Owen said.
The report, citing European scientists, said water is becoming scarcer and drought more frequent in southern parts of Europe.
“This increases vulnerability to desertification,” the audit states.
The hardest hit places in Europe are in the south, such as Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy, the report said, but desertification is also is moving northward. For instance, maps from 2008 show Sicily was nearly the only region in Italy at risk of desertification but new maps show the risk has extended to areas even north of Rome, according to the audit.
The audit said the EU needs to do more to identify which areas are at risk and fund projects to reverse desertification. It said there has been little spent on combating the creeping loss of land to degradation.
In individual countries, there are some projects to stem desertification, mostly involving irrigation, planting trees, rotating crops and restoring dry-stone walls and dykes to prevent erosion.
The world has been paying much attention to desertification for a long time. In 1996, the United Nations adopted the legally binding Convention to Combat Desertification, one of a few key environmental actions the UN took following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Under the convention, countries can voluntarily declare that they are suffering desertification and vow to take actions to stop that.
In the EU, 13 states have made such declarations and are seeking to combat desertification. But the EU as a whole has not declared itself affected by it and does not have an action plan, the audit said.
The countries that have declared desertification a problem are Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia.
Worldwide, as the planet gradually warms, desertification is becoming a bigger problem.
At a conference in late January in Guyana, the UN is scheduled to release a first global assessment of land degradation. The UN says it will be the most comprehensive assessment to date.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)