World Health Day 2021

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A statement by UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw

After a year in which COVID-19 has swept the world, killing almost three million people – so far – and devastating the global economy, today’s World Health Day is a moment to reflect. This year’s theme of "Building a fairer, healthier world for everyone" seeks to build a better world for us all.

The UNCCD believes land based solutions can offset the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19 to foster healthy ecosystems and support healthy people. There’s an urgent need – right now – to restore damaged ecosystems to help us build back better. That’s why the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will be launched in two months, on World Environment Day.

Yet as populations continue to grow, so does demand on land. Up to 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases and most recent epidemics originate from animals, crossing over when land use change modifies natural habitats, increasing close interactions between wildlife and humans. Every year, around one billion people become ill as a result of zoonoses, and millions die, mostly the vulnerable in low-income countries. Already this century, zoonotic diseases have caused global economic losses of over 100 billion USD.

Zoonotic diseases are not the only health crisis we face. In a warming world, extreme events like sand and dust storms are more common, more intense, and more prolonged. Last month the worst dust storms in decades hit Mongolia and northern China – reducing air quality and causing long term impacts on human health. Driven by climate change and land degradation, air pollution is a "hidden pandemic," killing almost nine million people a year – three times the COVID-19 toll.

Land degradation neutrality is crucial to help reduce the likelihood, impact and extent of future pandemics, and to pave the way to the recovery of lost resilience in our global systems. Protecting, restoring and buffering natural ecosystems is vital to building back better and to reducing the risks of novel infectious diseases emerging again. In the Sahel, the Great Green Wall Initiative is an ambitious African programme with the aim to bring back to health 100 millions of hectares of degraded land across 11 countries from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, delivering nature-based solutions to multiple challenges at epic scale to provide jobs and economic opportunities for millions and transform an entire region.

Guided by our goal of healthy land, the UNCCD strives for a fairer, healthier world for everyone. Our motto “healthy land; healthy people” is truer today than ever.

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