Europe's Soil Degradation a Silent Disaster

BONN, Germany, December 21, 2000 (ENS) - A "forgotten issue" and a "silent disaster" is how a report this week describes the degradation of Europe’s vital soil resources.

Compared to clean air and drinkable water, soil is taken for granted, according to the report by the European Environment Agency and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

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UNEP executive director Klaus Töpfer. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
"The sustainable use of soils is one of Europe’s greatest environmental, social and economic challenges," said UNEP executive director, Klaus Töpfer. "Although often overlooked, soil is a natural resource that is no less important to human well-being and the environment than clean water and clean air."

Degradation because of soil erosion, water erosion, human encroachment, acidification and climate change will accelerate unless prompt action is taken, say the agencies.

The report is entitled, "Down to earth: Soil degradation and sustainable development in Europe: A challenge for the 21st century." Its release was timed to coincide with the Fourth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which ends in Bonn, Friday.

Soil degradation is a form of desertification - a largely irreversible process by which vulnerable land loses its productive capacity. The Earth is covered by a fragile layer of soil which forms very slowly, but can be blown and washed away in a few seasons.

Since soil is the basis for 90 percent of human food, livestock feed, fibre and fuel, its loss is usually linked to poverty and food shortages.

UNCCD attempts to reverse this trend through vehicles such as the Global Mechanism, which attempts to attract funding and channel it to the areas that most need help, principally Africa and Asia.

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Soil is the basis for 90 percent of human food, livestock feed, fibre and fuel. It can filter and absorb contaminants. (Photo by Ian Britton, courtesy http://freefoto.com)
This week's report suggests that complacency over soil has led to damage that is only now becoming evident in Europe.

"In many parts of the world, as well as in Europe, we are now testing the limits of the resilience and multi-functional capacities of soil," said the report.

Aside from being the basis of food, fibre and fuel, those functions include soil's ability to filter and absorb contaminants.

The 32 page report outlines and quantifies the threats to Europe’s soils and proposes solutions.

Soils are being over-stressed by Europe’s dense settlement patterns and intensive economic activities and by acidification, erosion, contamination, and changes in climate, says the report.

Growing demand for food production, living space, leisure and tourism facilities, infrastructure and industrial production will only increase the pressure.

In some parts of Europe, notably Spain, the degradation is so severe that it has reduced the soil’s capacity to support human communities and ecosystems and resulted in desertification.

Elsewhere, the rate of soil loss due to surface sealing is acute. Surface sealing is brought about by road building, home construction and growth in urbanization generally. The problem is worst in Holland, Belgium and Germany, countries so intensively urbanized there is little space left for further expansion.

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This week's report says intense development has caused soil sealing, particularly in Holland Belgium. Urbanization on the scale seen in places like Brussels has left little space for expansion. (Photo by Ian Britton, courtesy http://freefoto.com)
In the Mediterranean countries, urbanization driven by tourism has been especially rapid in the coastal zones of southern Spain, the Mediterranean islands, southern France and Italy.

Soil sealing is also expected to increase within countries with relatively little urbanization such as Portugal, Finland and Ireland, and in Central and Eastern Europe.

The report says one third of Europe's soil may be affected, with more than 150 million hectares of soil suffering high erosion risk. In Spain, 18 percent of land is affected and in the Ukraine 41 percent of agricultural land is at risk of erosion. Water erosion risks will increase by 2050 in 80 percent of the European Union's agricultural land.

"Soil degradation is part of the systematic abuse of the European space, its territory and the natural resources involved," said Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán, the European Environment Agency’s executive director.

"This may become, in particular in the European Union, a main challenge for sustainability and would require a common approach."

Protecting soil, says the report, will help to preserve Europe’s resources, its identity and its ability to cope with change.

"At the global level, combating soil degradation will help offset greenhouse gas emissions, will provide a better environment, will guarantee more food to an increasing population and will contribute to the economic progress of future generations."

Unlike air and water, there is no legislation or funding instrument at the European Union level which directly addresses soil protection. But the report praises a recent initiative to create a European Soil Forum, with the objective to promote the exchange of information, raise awareness and build a common platform for soil protection in Europe.

The report sums up what needs to happen to address soil degradation in one word - integration.

"As soil has multiple users, consideration of soil has to be integrated at different levels," it says.

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UNCCD is funding this artificial water reservoir in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. (Photo courtesy UNCCD)
"There is a need for administrative (from local to European and global), sectoral (sectors and other environmental issues) and geographical integration (landscapes, urban, rural, mountain and coastal areas) of both soil assessment approaches and soil protection policies.

"Appropriate actions need to be taken at all administrative levels."

Those actions include assessment and monitoring of the effects of existing legislation and better information to support policy development.

"There is an urgent need for a coherent framework for monitoring and assessment of Europe’s soil, including the establishment of a data flow/reporting mechanism on Europe’s soils," it concludes.

To read the full report, visit: http://themes.eea.eu.int/toc.php/state/soil?doc=39303&l=en