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Rethinking drylands: Time to unlock their (big, neglected) potential

NP Kenya 211011_8

A herd of livestock near Marsabit town, in Kenya’s remote northern pastoral drylands (image on Flickr by Neil Palmer/CIAT).

It’s time to unlock the potential of the world’s drylands, which cover more than one-third of the earth and are home to a third of humanity, half of whom—one billion—live in poverty and hunger.

The current famine ravaging the Horn of Africa underscores the need to address the root causes of this crisis.

Many dryland areas have a long history of neglect, having been marginalized from both development processes and political discourse.

Dryland-focused policy options must be incorporated into national development agendas if they are to reduce poverty levels.

These are a few of the take-home messages of a new book produced by two United Nations organizations: The Forgotten Billion: MDG Achievement in the Drylands, which builds the case for mainstreaming dryland issues into national and international development frameworks.

Among ways proven successful in supporting sustainable drylands development is an index-based livestock insurance program in Mongolia, which can protect that country’s many livestock herders against extreme winter weather and other natural hazards. Last week a similar insurance scheme implemented by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and partners in Kenya’s northern Marsabit District made its first payouts to pastoral livestock herders there in the wake of the drought in the Horn (go here for those stories).

Other livestock-based ‘building blocks’ for successful dryland development highlighted by the book include legislation enacted in several West African countries to protect the mobility of pastoralists and their livestock herds and employing a ‘one-health’ approach by combining human and animal vaccination for nomadic families in Chad.

Excerpts from The Forgotten Billion:
‘Home to more than 2 billion people in nearly 100 countries, drylands cover about 40 percent of the world’s land surface. They encompass a wide variety of environments, including sandy deserts, temperate grasslands and savanna woodlands. Drylands are found on every continent but are most extensive in Africa and Asia (Figure 1.1). They are characterized by limited water resources—precipitation is often scarce and unreliable and evaporation is typically high. on average, drylands range in primary productivity from hyper-arid, arid and semi-arid, to dry subhumid. however, averages mask considerable variability. rainfall totals may fluctuate from year to year and over short distances. The result is a group of diverse and dynamic physical environments.

‘Globally, about half of all dryland inhabitants are poor. Many depend on a highly variable natural resource base for their livelihood and are constrained by socio-economic conditions that are worse than in other areas of the world. Most drylands are located in developing countries and approximately 90 percent of dryland peoples live in developing countries. Sustainable development in the drylands would help reduce poverty and hunger worldwide. Indeed, it will be impossible to meet the Millennium Development goals (MDGs) of halving world poverty and hunger by 2015 if life does not improve for the poor people of the drylands. Together, they are the ‘forgotten billion’. . . .

‘Despite the difficulties of living in drylands, people have successfully inhabited these areas for thousands of years. Historically, drylands played a central role in the development of human societies. The domestication of plants and animals, the creation of the city, and the advent of at least three major world religions can be traced to drylands. Today, drylands provide much of the world’s grain and livestock. Semi-arid areas such as the North American Great Plains, the Pampas in Argentina and the wheat belts of Ukraine and Kazakhstan produce a significant proportion of the world’s cereals.

Similarly, dryland rangelands support about 50 percent of the world’s livestock. . . .

‘Despite their historical and contemporary significance, drylands are the subject of several misconceptions that impede their sustainable development. One misconception is that drylands are barren places with little economic value. In truth, the value of dryland ecosystem services—to national economies and the lives of local people—is much higher than previously understood, even though their biological productivity is relatively low. A better appreciation of this value will help correct the notion that drylands cannot yield satisfactory and sustainable returns on investment due to the high risks associated with low and unreliable rainfall. Not least, poor people’s private investments are significant.

‘Equally erroneous is the notion that drylands’seclusion, poverty and low biological productivity condemn them to be weakly integrated into markets. In fact, dryland communities have long used markets to drive their development and the importance of this economic strategy is rapidly increasing. Markets can function even under uncertain conditions.

‘Greater respect for the resilience of dryland peoples goes hand in hand with an improved understanding of how dryland ecosystems operate. Contrary to the view that drylands are prone to relentless desertification, a new understanding of resilience in these environments emphasizes their variability as ‘disequilibrium’ systems. Further, the integrated approach to dryland challenges advocated by the Drylands Development Paradigm emphasizes the complex co-evolution of human and ecological systems in drylands.

‘Dryland communities are not, as often perceived, resistant to change. On the contrary, life in drylands requires inhabitants to be continually dynamic in response to their changing environment. Their existing adaptive capacity, assisted by appropriate policies and research, can offer viable pathways to development. The notion that standard development policy can adequately address risk and vulnerability in drylands must yield to emerging approaches that build on local and customary practices, often confronting variability directly.

‘The misapprehension that drylands contribute little to national and global economies and values should also be corrected. Drylands are increasingly important when viewed through the lens of emerging global issues such as food security and climate change. Meeting global food targets requires improved, sustainable management of dryland resources, including water, land and nutrients. The variability of dryland output must be reduced while production increases in line with global needs.’

Download the book: The Forgotten Billion: MDG Achievement in the Drylands, United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, 2011.

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