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Health is a fundamental human right and a key indicator of sustainable development. The health of our land and our own are intertwined. We rely on healthy land to support our wellbeing, provide nutritious food, clean air and fresh water, limit the spread of disease and stabilize our climate.

The stark reality that up to 40% of all land worldwide is already degraded reaches far beyond an environmental problem – by undermining the health of our land, we’re putting our own lives at risk. 

Changes in land use and management trigger a broad range of outcomes that affect human health and wellbeing, including changes in climate, food insecurity and polluted air. Air pollution – the largest environmental human health risk, associated with millions of excess deaths worldwide – is largely tied to land use conversion.  In 2019, outdoor air pollution caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2019, 89% of which occurred in low- and middle-income countries. 

Two billion tons of sand and dust enter the atmosphere every year. Often originating in ecologically fragile dryland areas, where vegetation cover is sparse or absent, sand and dust storms swoop in, damaging crops, killing livestock and stripping topsoil. They can carry atmospheric dust far beyond the point of origin, across thousands of kilometers, causing or worsening human health problems such as respiratory diseases and bacterial meningitis. 

Desertification, land degradation and drought also deprive the land of its capacity to store water, which means less is available for agriculture, drinking, cooking and hygiene, increasing the risks of food insecurity and communicable diseases. Few if any hazard claims more lives, causes more economic loss and affects more sectors of societies than drought. 

Preparing for droughts, instead of waiting until they strike, saves lives and livelihoods. Building drought resilience comes with an array of social and environmental co-benefits, including better health outcomes. For example, improving early warning systems and weather forecasts could save 23,000 lives and up to USD2 billion in developing countries every year. 

The intimate relationship between human health and land degradation has become even more apparent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was very likely set off by a collision course between wildlife and humans. As we transform more land from its original state and intrude upon wildlife territories, we open the gateway for novel zoonotic diseases. 

Future pandemics could cost the global economy US$2 trillion a year. For just 1% of that cost, we could prevent pandemics at their source by protecting nature and avoid the enormous toll that land degradation takes on our health. 

The One Health approach accounts for the interconnections between people, animals, plants and their shared environment. It recognizes that the long-term resilience and wellbeing of humanity depends on the health and integrity of nature. One Health highlights land restoration as a clear pathway to preventing future pandemics and mitigating other disasters by repairing damaged ecosystems. 

Sustainable land stewardship creates a solid foundation for securing our planet’s health as much as our own, so that this and future generations can thrive on land. 

2 trillion

USD per year is the potential economic cost of future pandemics

1 billion

hectares of degraded land can be restored by the end of this decade

An african mother and her child
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