Record droughts raise concerns over future of drylands

Posted: 17 February 2003

Author: Christian Layke

Drier than normal weather conditions in regions around the world - including near-record droughts in some countries - have sparked growing concern about the state of the world's drylands. Heavy use is stretching the limits of the world's drylands, which are home to more than 2 billion people, one-third of the earth's population.

"We tend to think that we can push dryland ecosystems indefinitely," says Dr Robin White, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and author of a new drylands report. "The long-term solution is to begin to value drylands not only for the goods that we can extract, but also for the services that they provide," says White.

Map: Population Density of DrylandsView/Download high-resolution image(300 DPI, 9526 KB).

Drylands - places like much of central and southern Africa, the southwestern United States, and the Middle East - occupy 40 per cent of the world's land area. They are home to some of the world's largest cities, including Mexico City, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, and Cape Town.

Water tight

But the water-pumping technologies and hydrological engineering advances that have allowed dryland cities like Las Vegas or Cairo to flourish, are beginning to hit some limits. While a number of dryland cities continue to grow at record speeds, they are often in conflict with the irrigation needs of farmers in surrounding areas. With growing demand for water from farmers, industries, and cities, supplies are increasingly tight.

Last month, the US Interior Department announced that it is planning to cut the flow of the Colorado River which is piped hundreds of miles to irrigate crops in arid southern California. The move is nearly unprecedented in the US West, where powerful agricultural interests have closely controlled water rights for more than half a century.

About 400 farmers in California's Imperial Irrigation District now use about three-quarters of the Colorado's water. The government wants to redistribute about 10 per cent of that to provide water for the 1.2 million residents of the growing city of San Diego.

"A common misconception is that drylands are lifeless and unproductive ecosystems," said White in her report, Drylands, People, and Ecosystem Goods and Services. "Drylands provide a wide array of ecosystem goods and services that support human, plant, and animal life. These goods and services are frequently overlooked."

Threatened livelihoods

More than 40 per cent of the world's poorest countries consist largely of drylands. Farming, raising livestock, and other means of making a living in these countries are often inextricably connected to the health of the land. But heavy demands on these lands are reducing their ability to support large populations. The United Nations estimates that the livelihoods of an estimated 1 billion people in 110 countries are threatened by drought and desertification

A number of countries around the world are experiencing the worst droughts they have seen in decades, and drylands have been among the hardest regions hit. Parts of the United States are now seeing dust-bowl like conditions. Starvation is a threat for tens of thousands in drought-stricken southern Africa. Massive numbers of livestock are dying of thirst in dry regions in Asia and the Pacific.

An ongoing 2-year drought in Mongolia, a country that is almost entirely made up of drylands, has nearly crippled the country's economy. Agriculture is Mongolia's mainstay, providing more than 35 per cent of GDP and 25 per cent of exports. Tens of thousands of animals have died in the two-year drought and agricultural production has been reduced by 17 per cent.

In Australia, most of the country is entering the third year of a drought that has been dubbed the "big dry." The dry weather has taken a heavy toll on the country's rural economy, much of which is based on dryland agriculture. Three-quarters of the country has seen the lowest levels of rain in almost a century, and hot temperatures have been close to record. Crop yields have been 60 to 70 per cent less than normal.

Drier drylands

Overgrazing, increased urbanization, climate change, more frequent fires, and the introduction of non-native species have left many drylands vulnerable to drier than normal weather. And around the world, a number of governments are starting to face the consequences of heavily taxed drylands - whether or not they want to.

However, attempts to solve problems confronting drylands, including the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, so far have not been very fruitful. The WRI report finds that dryland issues have failed to capture sufficient global attention to propel rapid progress in curbing land degradation and alleviating poverty in the world's drylands.

Past approaches to this issue have been focused almost entirely on halting land degradation and boosting the commodity production and agricultural yields of drylands. The report calls for a new approach, one that takes into account the array of benefits provided by drylands, including income from tourism, carbon sequestration, and ecological services provided by the diverse plants and animals that inhabit drylands.

"We have to reconsider the pressures we are placing on the world's drylands," said Dr White. "We need to become aware of the entire range of goods and services provided by the world's drylands, and we need to develop more timely and accurate indicators to help us manage these ecosystems more effectively."

Christian Layke is the gatekeeper of the on-line environmental portal, EarthTrends where more information on the world's drylands is available.

Related material:

Desertification and degraded land (facts and figures)

Deep trouble in Ethiopia

World's rangelands are turning to desert