What are drylands?

“Drylands” is the common name for (hyper)arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas which are characterized by low and irregular rainfall and high evapo-transpiration, and are subject to cyclical droughts. Drylands cover about 41% of the total global land area. Drylands can be found in some 100 countries, and contain nearly one third of the earth’s population (or 2 billion people). 54% of the world’s productive land is drylands and 61% of Africa’s productive land is drylands. Even though Asia and Latin America are also affected by desertification, Africa is under the greatest threat of land degradation.

Today, 70% of the victims of serious and permanent undernourishment – an estimated 600 million people – live in drylands. Examples of drylands are deserts, grasslands and savannahs, and woodlands. Natural resources, cultivation and livestock-rearing remain centrally important to the economies and livelihoods of the majority of people who live in drylands. In most countries with drylands these activities account for 30–50% of the Gross Domestic Product and are a major source of income and livelihood for 70–80% of the population.

What is desertification?

The degradation of drylands is often referred to as “desertification”. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD, www.unccd.int), desertification is defined as “land degradation resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities”.

Through changes in the physical and chemical composition of soil, the loss of natural vegetation and erosion by wind and water, land loses fertility and desert-like areas appear. These desert-like areas are very different from natu¬ral deserts, which are ecosystems with unique features. Desertification is characterised by loss of biological (soil, plants, animals) and cultural (lifestyles, languages, knowledge) diversity.

Scale of desertification

Desertification is a problem in all continents. All land is vulnerable to degradation. If land degradation occurs in dry areas, it is called desertification. About 41% of the total land surface of the world is dryland. Human activities are minimal in real or naturally occurring deserts and therefore deserts are not considered as risk areas. The most at risk area in the world is the Sahel, where 50% of the population is directly affected by land degradation.

The impact of land degradation is most severe where people are especially dependent on natural resources and are marginalised within the world economy. Currently it is estimated that some 70% of the world’s drylands are affected by degradation, and this has enormous consequences for world food security and biodiversity.

Causes and effects

The most well-known causes of desertification are overgrazing, population pressures, logging and bushfires. However, the pressure on countries to integrate into the world market has led to development programmes in which monocultures of cash crops are stimulated. These monocultures are very vulnerable to disease and plagues and require a lot of fertilisers and pesticides. The best land is used for these cash crops, leaving marginal land for subsistence farming and pasture. The reduction of the quality and availability of land leads to an extra pressure on remaining resources. As land and water continue to become scarce, conflicts within and between communities continue to increase.

For people, land degradation means a very low productivity or even harvest failure. The biomass of pasture decreases, with less food for cattle and less income and food for people. Land degradation also undermines social structures. The division of labour between men and women changes and, in general, the working load for women increases. Distances to gather fuel and water become longer, at the expense of other activities, for example the cooking of food. Loss of vegetation leads to water and wind erosion and air pollution. Quality of water diminishes through pollution and sedimentation.

These are all factors that directly or indirectly threaten health.
Not only locally, but also at the global level, the effects of land degradation are enormous. Productive capacity is decreasing at a rate of 10 billion hectares a year, and at the same time the world population is growing at a rate of 1.67% a year. This severely threatens world food security.

The loss of biodiversity in drylands is extremely severe. Most of the staple foods like wheat, barley, millet, pulses, and cotton stem from drylands, as well as many animals used by people like horses, cows, sheep, goats, camels and lamas. As there are not so many species and genes adapted to dry climates, every loss of genetic material in drylands has an enormous impact. Drylands hang in a precarious ecological balance, which is partly caused by periods of water scarcity. The disturbance of this balance can severely affect the people who depend on these fragile ecosystems.

(From: Both ENDS Information Pack Nr.1 Desertification)

How can I be part of the project?

Drynet partners welcome cooperation with any institution or organisation that is working on similar issues as the network. Please use the contact form to get in touch with the partner closest to you, or to ask a specific question to the network. You can also use this form to share information with us.

What is desertification mainstreaming?

By desertification mainstreaming we mean the integration of the environmental dimension, especially related to drylands and degradation, into national development priorities, processes and frameworks. Examples are the Millennium Development Guidelines, 5-year National Development Plans, EU Country Strategy Papers and World Bank PRSPs, and trade related frameworks.

The Global Mechanism and Drynet state the following in their joint publication Civil Society Organisations in Drylands – Practical guide: “As countries develop strategic national development frameworks to prioritise and guide resource allocation and official development assistance, development aid actors are increasingly aligning their programmes to these frameworks. It is essential that dryland and land management issues be addressed at this level to raise the political priority of drylands, whether through the NAP or other institutional frameworks. Efforts to achieve this can be called ‘mainstreaming,’ a process that involves dryland issues and needs becoming integrated within all development-related decision-making processes, policies and laws, institutions and planning frameworks.”