About the Drylands Initiative

The Challenge

Dryland ecosystems have unique features that demand similarly unique management and conservation strategies. In particular, drylands are influenced by low and highly uncertain precipitation, which for example makes it difficult to predict when, where and how much it will rain. Dryland biodiversity and livelihoods have typically been well adapted to these uncertainties, but efforts to strengthen livelihoods and protect biodiversity have sometimes not taken these adaptations into consideration. The outcome has been loss of biodiversity and increase in vulnerability in many drylands.

The concept of desertification has generated some global awareness of drylands, but has also spread confusion over the natural state of drylands and the considerable value of deserts. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification defines desertification as “Land Degradation in Drylands”. This phenomenon contributes to loss of biodiversity and to poverty in dry areas. Sustainably managing drylands can contribute greatly to conservation of biodiversity and to mitigating climate change as well as to strengthening human resilience.

The Mara River, Kenya

However, development pressures are strong in many dryland areas and there is often competition over the most limiting resources such as water or cultivable lands. As a result dryland resource managers often find that key resources are dwindling: for example when dry season grazing reserves are put under the plough or water sources dry up. The resulting changes often contribute to biodiversity loss. However, many dryland communities are marginalised within their countries and often have to cope with weak legal rights over their natural resources. This poses a challenge to effective natural resource governance.



What are drylands?

Drylands are tropical and temperate places where the potential evapotranspiration is at least 50% greater than the mean annual precipitation (giving an Aridity Index of less than 0.65). Drylands are often categorised into four sub-types – dry sub-humid, semi-arid, arid and hyper-arid (deserts) – all of which are included in IUCN’s programme of work. These are diverse landscapes that cover vast areas and often encompass other ecosystems, such as wetlands or high-altitude forests. They also include significant urban areas and host mega-cities such as Mexico City, Los Angeles, Cairo and New Delhi. Drylands are characterised by highly uncertain precipitation, which means that water availability can vary greatly not just between seasons, but also between years and between areas. Other natural phenomena can characterise drylands and both herbivores and fire can play an important ecological role. Together these factors create patchy environments whose natural condition fluctuates, posing challenges for measuring degradation.


IUCN’s Response

The Drylands Initiative contributes to strengthening the resilience of dryland ecosystems and livelihoods and to conserving drylands biodiversity. The Initiative builds on and strengthens the local knowledge and institutions that enable people to govern their resources sustainably. This is achieved by strengthening rights and governance from local to national level as well as globally.

Stronger institutional foundations and more effective governance provide a platform for sustainable development in drylands. Based on these foundations IUCN can help to strengthen the institutional arrangements for planning and management of dryland ecosystems at the appropriate scale. IUCN’s Drylands Initiative helps identify and scale up good practices through knowledge management, capacity building and policy dialogue. This includes promotion of public and private investment in drylands and improving access to profitable markets and markets for ecosystem goods and services.

The IUCN Drylands Initiative convenes dialogue between multiple stakeholders: between communities, civil society organisations, government, researchers and private business. Emphasis is placed on empowering dryland communities and building their capacity to deploy local knowledge: for sustainable management of their resources as well as to influence policy and research. Within IUCN the Drylands Initiative engages with multiple thematic programmes, commissions and members to add value and to support learning regarding the uniqueness of dryland biodiversity.


Strategic Priorities Brochure (2013-2016)
  • Strategic Priorities Brochure

    Strategic Priorities Brochure

    Photo: Drylands

Conserving Dryland Biodiversity Book
  • Conserving Drylands Biodiversity

    Conserving Drylands Biodiversity

    Photo: GDI

Dryland opportunities : a new paradigm for people, ecosystems and development
  • Dryland opportunities
The nature of drylands: diverse ecosystems, diverse solutions
  • The nature of drylands: Diverse ecosystems, diverse solutions