Securing a brighter future for drylands

23 September 2009 | News story

How can we ensure sustainable development in the world’s drylands where many of the world’s poorest people live? That’s the challenge facing decision makers who are gathering in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires this week for a UN meeting on combating desertification and where IUCN is offering a blueprint for action.

Drylands cover more than 40% of the earth’s land surface and are home to more than a third of the world’s population. They are far more than just deserts and can include grassland, savanna and wetlands that are home to some unique biodiversity. Drylands are productive and resilient places that supply water, food, animal fodder, fuelwood, shelter, medicinal plants and globally-valued commodities such as gum Arabic and cashmere. But these facts are often overlooked and there is a widespread misconception that drylands are wastelands, fuelled by media reports of drought and famine, particularly in Africa.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the main international treaty charged with tackling land degradation and sustainable dryland management. This week sees the Convention’s Ninth Conference of the Parties, to which IUCN is sending a strong delegation. It wants to see a shift in focus away from desertification and land degradation towards maximizing the opportunities that exist for sustainable dryland development and the empowerment of local people. Today at the Conference, IUCN is launching its new publication - Dryland Opportunities: A new paradigm for people, ecosystems and development which outlines the key steps needed at national and international levels.

“Sound dryland management must start with strengthening the capacity of people who rely on dryland biodiversity to adapt to changing conditions. There needs to be far greater recognition by governments of the existing value of dryland ecosystem services both to local people’s livelihoods and to national economies,” says Neville Ash, Head of IUCN’s Ecosystem Management Programme. “What’s needed is the adoption of a wider landscape, or ecosystem approach that takes into account the intricate relationship between people and their natural resources and how external pressures, such as changing economic markets are affecting them,” he adds.

One of the most serious threats to drylands is climate change, but drylands can also play a key role in both mitigation and adaptation including through carbon sequestration, climate regulation and watershed protection. IUCN is calling for a stronger relationship between the UNCCD and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and encourages Parties to the UNCCD to address the growing threats climate change poses to drylands. Dryland people have a wealth of knowledge on how to adapt to changing and unpredictable climate and this should form the basis of development planning, the Union believes. Through its extensive network of member organizations, both governmental and civil society, and leading experts on ecosystems and biodiversity, IUCN is ideally placed to offer practical guidance and solutions for sustainable dryland development.