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What do you know about desertification? It is commonly thought that this is simply the process of land becoming deserts. However, it is not as simple as it seems, because it leads to the loss of biodiversity, poses a threat to food security and leads to regional poverty, threatening the survival of humankind. Desertification is caused by a variety of factors, such as climate change and human activities.

Desertification has more of an impact on the environment. Specifically, Korea has an unwelcome guest called yellow dust every spring. Yellow dust is a phenomenon where small sand particles or yellow dust float in the air, are transferred to the upper atmosphere, and then   fall close to the surface. The three conditions for causing yellow dust are continued wind, air currents and plenty of dried sand on the surface. Wind is the source of yellow dust, air currents become thermal energy and sand becomes the physical foundation of yellow dust. If wind and air current are considered as uncontrollable elements, the most important cause for yellow dust is desertification and devastation of land. Yellow dust causes an increasing air pollution concentration and respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, asthma and eye diseases. Also, it causes grounding, delaying and increasing accidents from land marine and air transportations. According to Korea Environment Institute, in 2002, the amount of property damage related with yellow dust is approximately between 3.8 trillion won and 7.3 trillion won.

According to Korean Forest Service, the desertification ratio is 37% in Asia which is higher than Africa at 32% among major continents. Since 2001, 55% of yellow dust observed in Korea has originated from inner-Mongolia and the Manchuria region, that is, in Northeast Asia. China and Mongolia’s size of desertification is large. The causes for desertification in China are first of all reckless cultivation and environmentally unfriendly ways of using land. Also, it is because of poor techniques for controlling and managing grassland, promoting excessive grazing. Mongolia is located in the center of Asia and lies in a dry climate zone. The size of the desert is 40% of the entire land area, and 90% of the entire land is under the influence of desertification. The mid-south region of Mongolia including Gobi Desert is the region that is most seriously threatened by desertification. Desertification is expanding in Mongolia because of rising temperature and low rainfall. Desertification is further spreading by excessive grazing and poor agricultural technologies, forest diversion, absence of fire and pest prevention activities.

Kang Ho-duck, professor of department of Biological and Environmental Science at Dongguk University and head of Yellow Dust and Combating Desertification, is a pioneer in the area of combating desertification in Korea. He graduated from the Department of Forestry at the Dongguk University in 1987 and obtained Master’s and Ph.D degrees at Iowa State University. He worked at the International Cooperation Division of Forestry Administration in the position of deputy director. After being a professor, he established an Institute of Yellow Dust and Combating Desertification as a unique organization in 2006. This organization has been conducting relevant research on desertification in Northeast Asia, including China and Mongolia, under the framework of Dongguk University.

The Institute has established educational forests to combat desertification in Mongolia since 2009 and has conducted joint research and run exchanged programs for students majoring in forestry between Dongguk University and National University of Mongolia. Also, the Institute offers many opportunities to study desertification subjects applied to environmental biotechnology for M.S and Ph.D degrees in the Department of Biological and Environmental Science, College of Life Science and Biotechnology, Dongguk University.

The tenth session of the conference of the parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was hosted for the first time in Asia by the Korea Forest Service and South Gyeongsang provincial government from October 10 to 21. It is one of the three major environment related agreements of the UN together with the Climate Change Convention and Convention on Biological Diversity. The purposes of this convention are to prevent desertification and to ease the damage from drought through international financial and technical support for member parties that are experiencing severe droughts and desertification including member parties in Africa, and to contribute to sustainable development of affected areas. The Institute of Yellow Dust and Combating Desertification joined the COP (Conference of Parties)-3 of Brazil in 1998, COP-9 of Argentina in 2009 and COP-10 of Korea in 2011 as a consulting member. Also, the Institute is a member of Working Group Meeting in Joint Research on Dust and Sandstorms among Korea, China and Japan.

With the hosting of the UNCCD, Korea is expected to strengthen its capacity in terms of providing a platform to bring the issue of desertification into the mainstream as a global issue. Kang Ho-duck, head of the Institute, is planning to establish a Research Institute on Combating Desertification in arid and semi-arid areas. He said that he saw this Research Institute as a natural follow-up to the hosting of the UNCCD to reflect the world’s attention.

“Each year, areas of land of the republic of Korea are turning into a desert and half of the world’s population has been affected by this.”

Desertification is expanding and accelerating at an alarming rate. Kang said desertification must be considered as a global issue, not limited to one country’s problem. He added that to reduce damages from yellow dust, continued research on desertification is needed. Lastly, He emphasized active participation of university students in environment problems. University students have an easy access to information about the overseas volunteers program and a design competition for environment. He said that by participating to these programs, students directly or indirectly would have a chance to contribute toward solving the environmental problems.

Kim Yu-young  tbfor700@dongguk.edu

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