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Because a severe drought in the Sahel region of West Africa has left them with no other income this year, a rising number of impoverished people are trekking to the small informal gold pits of Burkina Faso, where they scavenge for tiny flecks of gold. This 15-year-old girl is working all day in the gold pits, rather than being in school. Children as young as 6 are working here.

Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail

Canada's decision to be the first country in the world to withdraw from the United Nations convention to combat drought is being justified as a cost-savings measure involving an organization that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird calls a bureaucratic "talkfest" and International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino says has "showed few results, if any for the environment."

Those are harsh words for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which is a research-based organization that Canada helped to champion into formation in 1994 and even led between 2001 and 2003, when it held the presidency of its decision-making body. The organization currently costs Canada $350,000 a year, so the withdrawal is not a significant budget-balancing savings.

So why have we quit? Let's hope it is not because the Conservative government has decided drought is a problem that only affects people in faraway parts of Africa, so the funding doesn't serve our national interest. And let's hope it is not due to a lack of interest in scientific research on drought and climate-change matters. Drought has recurred in Canada, especially in the Prairie provinces, and is expected to happen even more often in the future, as temperatures rise.

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Indeed, at a UN-sponsored convention on drought policy in Geneva two weeks ago, an official from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada told assembled delegates "it is inevitable" there will be more droughts and "it's critical we deal with them." He's right. A research project published in 2008 by Environment Canada and researchers in Saskatchewan estimated a drought in Canada in 2001 and 2002 caused agricultural production to drop by $3.6-billion, and concluded the future risk of drought "is greater than previously thought" because of climate change.

Canada's decision to leave the UN body appears to have been taken with little consultation either with the organization itself or with the non-governmental groups that work on drought research. It's easy to fear the move was a short-sighted decision to scratch a line item from the budget because of a shifting focus for foreign aid financing, and with little reflection on Canada's significant interest in the topic. Let's hope it is not an irreversible move.

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