Drylands: Much More Than Their Name Suggests

Human Wrongs Watch

You might not expect it, but over 25 percent of the world’s forests are in drylands!

Drylands-storyIt may seem like drylands are just barren spaces, but they are actually ecosystems teeming with biodiversity. ©FAO

ROME, 20 March 2021 (FAO)* — When you think of drylands, do you think of miles of empty, barren desert? Well, think again!

Drylands are actually a unique type of ecosystem characterised by water scarcity and low precipitation. Plants and animals here survive on little water, adapted to the droughts and heat waves that are common in these areas.

However, just because these regions are dry does not mean that they are barren. Drylands are still productive landscapes with considerable economic potential and environmental value, but the monitoring and rehabilitation of dryland ecosystems has not attracted as much attention as other ecosystems, such as rainforests. Drylands are vulnerable, yet they are being neglected.

Climate change, unsustainable land use and increasing weather scarcity are all causing drylands to degrade beyond repair, affecting ecosystems, harming biodiversity, reducing land productivity and limiting the production of crops, plants and livestock, all of which make life harder for the communities who live there.

So why should drylands be a priority?

Because a quarter of the world’s forests are in drylands

It may surprise you to know, but more than a quarter of the world’s forests are located in drylands. Trees are present on almost a third of the world’s dryland regions, equalling 1.1 billion hectares of forest, according to FAO’s latest Dryland Assessment.

These trees and forests are hugely important for the planet. They provide habitats for biodiversity, protect land against wind erosion and desertification, provide shade for crops, animals and people, help water penetrate soils and contribute to soil fertility.

The rest of drylands aren’t just desert either: 25 percent of global drylands are grassland and 14 percent is cropland.

Because protecting drylands protects biodiversity

Drylands are home to more than a third of global biodiversity hotspots and provide critical migration points for birds.

In Northern Africa’s Saharan Desert, owing to its location at the crossroads of the Atlas Mountains, the Nile River and the desert, the region has rich biodiversity with many endemic species. In Eastern Africa’s dryland areas, vegetation ranges from woodlands, where trees can reach up to 15 meters in height, to hyper-arid landscapes with few shrubs.

14 percent of drylands are croplands use by local communities. ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Because drylands are home to two billion people.

Drylands are home for nearly 40 percent of the world’s population. The socio-economic status of people in drylands is significantly lower than that of people in many other areas, to the extent that most of the world’s poverty is concentrated in drylands.

Water availability in drylands is around one-third below the threshold for minimum human wellbeing and sustainable development. These areas are remote, far from public services and markets and dependent on natural resources, so the people living there are vulnerable to food shortages.

As the productive land continues to decrease, it will become more difficult for people in these areas to get the nutrition they need for themselves and their families.

Because climate change is already impacting these systems.    

Climate change is already degrading drylands areas. If we continue on this path, conditions in drylands will become more extreme with more droughts, intense heat waves and strong winds.

So what is FAO doing about it?

FAO and its partners have rolled out many projects that protect drylands and curb desertification.

As one example, FAO and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States have implemented the Action Against Desertification programmeto tackle the detrimental social, economic and environmental impact of land degradation and desertification.

The initiative supports local communities, governments and civil society in Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Fiji and Haiti to restore degraded land and to manage fragile ecosystems in a sustainable way.

The programme restores land by planting the right species in the right places to improve soil quality, promoting the use of quality native forest seeds and managing natural regeneration of species and planted areas through village management committees.

Globally, there are currently over 60 000 hectares under restoration and over 500 village communities involved in restoration activities with the participation of an estimated over 1 million farmers, half of them women.

The Action Against Desertification initiative supports the implementation of Africa’s Great Green Wall in a stretch of dryland covering 780 million hectares of arid and semi-arid land around the Sahara.

This initiative will help farmers protect and manage the natural regeneration of forests, croplands and grasslands. Where degradation is more severe, the initiative is implementing large-scale land preparation activities and planting additional vegetation.

Chatoumane, in the Republic of Niger, suffers from a long dry season, which is only extending due to the effects of climate change. ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

In conjunction with projects designed to revive drylands and reverse desertification, FAO has launched a new initiative called Making every voice count for adaptive management.

This new approach provides a platform for communities living in dryland regions all over the world to share with each other the lessons they have learned on land restoration in order to help other communities in similar situations protect their local environment.

The initiative builds communities’ capacities through the creation of participatory videos taken by the communities themselves, capturing their experiences, challenges and achievements.

At the end of the project, the videos will be translated in other local languages and shared amongst countries undertaking similar projects. By sharing local knowledge in an interactive, inclusive and empowering way and encouraging communities to take ownership of the projects in their areas, we can make a long-term difference to dryland regions.

A better future cannot be achieved without social and economic investment in drylands. Combatting  land degradation and desertification means conserving biodiversity, supporting livelihoods and protecting our planet.


Learn More

2021 Human Wrongs Watch

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