What do you think when you hear the term DRYLANDS? Most people think of dry and useless areas where nobody lives. However, a recent WRI report argues that your views could change if you enhance your understanding of drylands and the benefits they provide. In fact, benefits provided by drylands could be quite valuable to companies as well, particularly in the water management and carbon storage areas.
The world’s drylands are remarkable ecosystems. Encompassing grasslands, agricultural lands, forests, and urban areas, they make up about 40 percent of the world’s land area. Popular misconceptions hold that drylands are empty, barren places. However, while the hardships for humans living in drylands are rarely disputed, drylands have supported people’s livelihoods for thousands of years. Today, drylands are home to approximately two billion people worldwide and include the African Sahel, Australian Outback, South American Patagonia, and North American Great Plains.
For decades, national and international policy makers have been concerned that drylands are at risk of irreversible degradation, that is, loss of their long-term capacity to supply goods and services to human populations. Such ecosystem degradation in drylands would exacerbate the conditions of poverty and threaten the livelihoods of those most dependent on natural resources. These people are frequently among the poorest in the world, with many subsisting on less than US$1 per day. And, living in regions of highly variable rainfall and periodic drought, they experience high food insecurity. Unfortunately, policies thus far have not been as effective as possible or uniquely focused in their attempts to address poverty and inequity issues in drylands.
Dryland assessment and management initiatives to date have failed to generate adequate interest and funding, largely because investors, development agencies, and the public have an incomplete understanding of the full range of valuable goods and services drylands have to offer. Traditionally, emphasis has been placed on the damage that dryland ecosystems have incurred due to human activities. Support for programs in drylands has the potential to grow significantly if more attention is called to their diverse productive capacities, while simultaneously incorporating the optimization of dryland resource use into the program’s objectives.
Drylands provide multiple goods and services. For example:
Carbon Storage Over time, human activities have altered the amount of carbon that flows through and is stored in various reservoirs. To offset the global warming caused by climbing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, countries actively are seeking ways to reduce atmospheric CO2 by increasing carbon storage capacity on land. Drylands, as an ecosystem with extensive surface area across the globe, can store large amounts of carbon, most of it in the soil rather than in vegetation. They have thus been suggested as potential candidates for major carbon storage efforts.
Forage and Livestock More so than any other use today, people rely on drylands to provide forage for the production of domestic livestock. Some of the highest livestock densities in the world are in the drylands of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. From cattle, sheep, and goat herds, to horses and camels, drylands support a large variety of domestic animals, which become the source of meat, milk, wool, and leather products for humans.
Food ProductionDryland ecosystems are also used extensively for the production of food. Many of our major food crops, such as wheat, barley, sorghum, and millet originated in drylands. Today, wild varieties from these centers of origin serve as sources of genetic plant material for developing drought-resistant crop varieties.
Freshwater Freshwater resources in drylands, often limited and variable in availability, are important water sources for drinking, irrigating crops, and supporting wetland flora and fauna. Water basins in drylands are found on every continent, ranging from low population densities (1 person/km2) to high population densities (nearly 400 people/km2).
Biodiversity Drylands provide habitat for species uniquely adapted to variable and extreme environments. Dryland species range from micro-organisms, to ants, grasshoppers, and snakes to large carnivores such as cheetahs and leopards. Some areas have been identified as especially important to the survival of these uniquely adapted plants and animals. For example, The IUCN-World Conservation Union, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have identified at least 39 Centers of Plant Diversity (CPDs) in drylands where there are especially high levels of plant diversity.
Energy Drylands offer opportunities for alternative energy resources such as wind and solar power and for development of more efficient energy technologies such as fuel-efficient cooking and heating stoves.
Tourism Drylands have become major tourist destinations. Tourists may be attracted by the open, vast, and picturesque landscapes. Others may rely on dryland areas for hiking and camping, hunting, wildlife-watch, or photography. Specific dryland sites are considered culturally and spiritually important.
Conclusion Dryland ecosystems provide a wide array of goods and services and support flora, fauna, and people in important and often unique ways. Investments in developing and enhancing these goods and services can do much to raise the support for dryland populations and lead to improved lifestyles and poverty alleviation.