Could there be a more suitable area for an international United Nations conference on desertification and land degradation than the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa?

In mid-September close to 3000 delegates arrived in Windhoek to attend the 11th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP 11). 

One of the three major environmental conventions launched at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the UNCCD deals with major issues that directly affect the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people across the world. 

The conference was also highly topical as Namibia, famous for its extensive Kalahari and Namib deserts, is currently experiencing the worst drought in a generation, speeding up the process of desertification and land degradation and severely impacting the country’s myriad rural communities. 

Devastating degradation

Delegates from the 195 member parties to the UNCCD, United Nation organisations, intergovernmental and civil society organizations came together to debate and find solutions towards improving the living conditions of people in drylands; maintaining and restoring land and soil productivity; and mitigating the effects of drought. 

The deforestation of natural vegetation to make way for the expansion of crops and overgrazing are the major contributing factors to land degradation and the growth of desertification. More than half of all agricultural land globally is affected by desertification and this is growing at a rapid rate. In 1991 just 15 percent of the earth’s total land area was classified as “degraded”, in 2011 this figure had spiralled to 25 percent. 

According to the UNCCD, land degradation directly affects 1.5 billion people globally. A total of 24 billion tons of fertile soil are lost every year because of cropland erosion, while another 12 million hectares of land falls prey to drought and desertification every year. In addition, the earth loses 27,000 species each year due to land degradation.

A Country committed to combatting desertification

Namibia is characterised by arid conditions and recurring droughts and has a long history of battling its vulnerability to desertification and the marginal nature of farming that dominates much of the country.

Namibia ratified the UNCCD in 1997, after launching the National Programme to Combat Desertification (NAPCOD) three years earlier in 1994. NAPCOD served as Namibia’s first National Action Programme (NAP) to the UNCCD, and was replaced in 2007 by the Country Pilot Partnership for Integrated Sustainable Land Management, which ran until 2012. A third generation NAP was launched during COP11.

Namibia was one of the earliest developing nations to implement a NAP, and has used this experience to play a leading role in the workings of the UNCCD. Namibian experts have been highly prominent in sub-committees and panels of the UNCCD, and Namibian insight and experience contributed richly to the development of the Global 10 Year Strategic Plan of the UNCCD (2008-2018).

A Namibian First

It is the first time a UNCCD COP is held in Southern Africa, and only the third in Africa – where the majority of the world’s drylands are located. This is the second time in two years one of the three major United Nations environmental conferences took place in Southern Africa (The Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework on Climate took place in Durban, South Africa in November 2011). 

The country’s growing reputation as an excellent business and tourism destination has preceded it. This year alone, Namibia plays host to several large international conferences such as the E-learning Africa conference, the Adventure World Tourism Summit, the International Water Association’s Conference on Water Reuse and the World Indigenous Business Forum. 

The UNCCD COP 11 tops the charts in number of visitors and preparations. Together with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the event organiser Conference Systems Namibia rolled out a detailed operations plan with all aspects of the event mapped out in minute detail. 

The conference was held at the Windhoek Country Club and Casino Resort, a prestigious location and the pearl in the crown of the Namibian tourism industry. But even this sprawling facility with its upmarket rooms and 18-hole competition grade golf course, is not able to house thousands of delegates in a plenary discussion.

This is why the organisers embarked on an ambitious plan, which saw the vicinity of the resort turned into a temporary United Nations compound. The parking area was cleared of shade netting, curbs and lampposts to make room for a 7-bay Gearhouse In2Structures Supa Dome. This huge temporary structure can seat thousands of people comfortably and this one housed all the state of the art electronics to beam the deliberations to all corners of the globe. “The structure is impressive,” said Managing Director of Conference Systems Namibia, Martin Macphail “only one structure of this size and nature is available on the African continent, and it came to Namibia to house the plenary discussions of the COP 11. Construction of the Supa Dome took two weeks.”

The Supa Dome rises 15.5 meters into sky and has an internal width of close to 36 meters. More than 2000 square meters is available under cover to house the stage and to seat delegates. 

“This is the first time the UNCCD COP 11 has taken place in a structure such as this – that is, housed almost entirely under ‘canvas’,” continued Macphail. “This entailed an unprecedented engineering exercise at the venue, putting in utilities, piping and thousands of metres of cabling to ensure delegates had use of the most state-of-the-art conference and IT infrastructure available.”

Even though the Domes use a reinforced membrane as a covering, the structural support and stability create a venue that compares with any permanent conferencing facility. The membranes reduce around 70 % of any external sounds and the black interior prevents light spill, making this the optimal environment for Audio Visual presentation.”

In addition to the Supa Dome, several temporary structures were built to accommodate United Nation offices, a media centre, TV broadcast studios, security and accreditation areas, a large exhibition hall, a beer garden and VIP areas. A smaller 7 bay In2Structures Maxi Dome (1600 sq.m) was used for the committee meeting room.

Environmental Commissioner Nghitila concluded: “Namibia welcomed the international community to UNCCD COP 11 making preparation for delegates to experience an event as colourful, warm, hospitable and innovative as the Namibian people themselves.”

Story courtesy Hybridity, photo Windhoek Country Club

Sep 10, 2013

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