The World As We Knew It Has Been Left Behind
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    U.N. says desertification spreading fast

    By Chris Hawley

    UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The world is turning to dust, with lands the size of Rhode Island becoming desert wasteland every year and the problem threatening to send millions of people fleeing to greener countries, the United Nations says.

    One-third of the Earth's surface is at risk, driving people into cities and destroying agriculture in vast swaths of Africa. Thirty-one percent of Spain is threatened, while China has lost 36,000 square miles to desert - an area the size of Indiana - since the 1950s.

    This week the United Nations marks the 10th anniversary of the Convention to Combat Desertification, a plan aimed at stopping the phenomenon. Despite the efforts, the trend seems to be picking up speed - doubling its pace since the 1970s.

    "It's a creeping catastrophe," said Michel Smitall, a spokesman for the U.N. secretariat that oversees the 1994 accord. "Entire parts of the world might become uninhabitable."

    Slash-and-burn agriculture, sloppy conservation, overtaxed water supplies and soaring populations are mostly to blame. But global warming is taking its toll, too.

    The United Nations is holding a ceremony in Bonn, Germany, on Thursday to mark World Day to Combat Desertification, and will hold a meeting in Brazil this month to take stock of the problem.