At a glance

  • Drylands are defined by their aridity. They cover four zones: hyper-arid (desert); arid; semi-arid; and dry sub-humid.
  • Drylands cover 41% of the earth’s land surface and are home to more than 2 billion people, 90% of them in developing countries.
  • 30% of all cultivated plants came from drylands.
  • In developing countries, infant mortality in drylands averages about 54 children per 1,000 live births, twice as high as in non-dryland areas, and 10 times the infant mortality rate in developed countries.
  • Water scarcity affects between 1-2 billion people, most of them in the drylands. Under climate change scenarios, nearly half of the world’s population in 2030 will be living in areas of high water stress.

Tackling climate change

  • 46% of global carbon is stored in drylands.
  • Drylands soils contain 53% of global soil carbon, and dryland plants 14% of global biotic carbon. 
  • Land rehabilitation practices such as mulching, composting, manuring, grazing management and mixed cropping increase the carbon storage of dryland soils.

Food security

  • More than 50% of the world’s productive land is dryland. 
  • In Argentina 70% of cattle is reared in dryland regions.
  • In India, 45% of agricultural production takes place in the country’s dryland areas.
  • In China, 78 million dryland cashmere goats supply up to 75% of the world’s cashmere fibre.
  • 50% of the world's livestock is supported by rangelands.
  • Each year 20 million hectares of agricultural land either becomes too degraded for crop production or is lost to urban sprawl.

The bad news

  • It is estimated that 10-20% of drylands is already degraded.
  • It can take up to 500 years for 2.5cm of soil to form.
  • Desertification is occurring in 70% of all drylands.

The good news

  • 16% of degraded land was improved between 1981 and 2003, 43% was in rangelands and 18% was cropland.
  • Between 1980 and 2000, small-scale investments in soil and water conservation in Burkina Faso created a turn-around in agricultural productivity, even reversing migration to cities.
  • Biodiversity conservation is at the heart of sustainable development efforts in countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya: 13% of Kenya’s GDP comes from tourism, most of which is to visit dryland biodiversity; in Namibia it accounts for 30% of foreign exchange earnings.
  • The number of international visitors to drylands is increasing—tourists are drawn by their wildlife, scenic beauty and cultural richness.
  • In Niger since the mid 1980s at least 250,000ha of severely degraded dryland have been rehabilitated.

Sources: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).