August 29, 2003, World Resources Institute:
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
Drylands - places like much of central and southern
Africa, the southwestern United States, and the Middle
East - occupy 40 percent 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.
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.
Early this year, the U.S. 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 U.S. West, where powerful agricultural interests
have closely controlled water rights for more than half
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
percent 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
More than 40 percent 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 percent of GDP and 25 percent
of exports. Tens of thousands of animals have died in
the two-year drought and agricultural production has
been reduced by 17 percent.
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 percent less than normal.
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
However, attempts to solve problems confronting drylands,
including the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification
which is meeting in Havana Aug. 25-Sept. 5, 2003, 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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is gatekeeper
of the online environmental portal, EarthTrends (http://earthtrends.wri.org)
where more information on the world's drylands are available.