Drylands mustn't go to waste

24 May 2010 | News story

How can we manage something that we can’t measure? The value of drylands is often overlooked and yet they are a crucial source of income and other benefits for millions of people worldwide, as well as for the environment. IUCN works to ensure that dryland resources are valued, recognized and taken into account by decision makers.

Drylands are characterized by low, erratic and usually bi-modal rainfall of up to 1,000mm (and as low as less than 200 mm) per annum as well as periodic droughts, that can happen every five years. They can be found on every continent and cover extensive areas of land. They stretch over 41% of the earth’s land surface. In Africa, the size of drylands has been increasing rapidly in recent years; in Kenya, they currently cover 80% of the country’s surface and support over 30% of the country’s population.

But, to many, these vast areas of land seem without any value and are often viewed as ‘sinks’ and areas for social welfare. The real benefits that they can bring are rarely appreciated and taken into account by policy makers.
And yet, these are areas of extremely significant economic value.

“They provide a multitude of services to local communities and other users and have enormous socio-economic and ecological importance. Many people depend directly for their livelihoods on goods and services provided by drylands ecosystems, such as rangelands, medicinal plants, fruits, fuel and construction materials. They also provide support to ecosystem functions, including nutrient cycling and carbon capture, water supply and regulation and local climate regulation," says Guyo Roba, Dryland Programme Officer from IUCN’s East and Southern Africa Regional Office. “They are also important to soil formation.” 

Measuring these diverse values is challenging and requires a range of measures to consider the wide variety of goods and services. 

“But how can decision makers make informed choices if we talk of values only in a ‘moral’ sense rather than an economic sense?” asks Guyo Roba. “Valuing biodiversity requires an understanding of the full range of ecosystem goods and services, species diversity and so on.” 

This is one of the focuses of IUCN’s work in Eastern Africa: to value drylands reso urces, change the traditional mindset about them and look at the benefits that can be derived from them. It is also important to look at ways to reward activities which are compatible with dryland environments and can bring about significant environmental benefits to these areas. These benefits are not recognized and in some cases they are denied and penalized. 

“We’re trying to build a case for why drylands need to be valued” says Guyo Roba. “We need to measure their contribution to people’s livelihoods and the health of ecosystems, to be able to intervene more effectively and to draw the attention of policy makers and governments to the issue. We want to look at the critical resources in these areas, how you can attract private and public investors and how you can influence changes in policy and general attitudes towards drylands, highlighting the fact that they need to be considered for the sake of economic development and for people’s livelihoods”.

Guyo presented IUCN’s work on valuing drylands during a side event at the fourteenth meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) in Nairobi, where this issue has been coming more and more into the focus of discussions.