Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Tuesday, 17 June 2008 11:45 UK

A way of life is feeling the heat

Masego Madzwamuse (Image: IUCN)
Masego Madzwamuse

International development policies are undermining the long term survival of some of the globe's poorest communities, argues Masego Madzwamuse. In this week's Green Room, she says the skills and knowledge needed to survive in the world's harsh drylands are being sacrificed in the name of progress.

Nigerian market (Image: Daniele Perrot-Maitre/IUCN)
Nature's contribution to the survival of the poor needs to be recognised as an important asset
The world's poorest of the poor live in the toughest areas of the planet - the drylands.

These areas all have key factors in common: water is scarce, and rainfall is unpredictable - or it rains only during a very short period every year.

Drylands cover more than 40% of the Earth's surface and are home to more than two billion people.

These areas are also home to a disproportionate number of people without secure access to food.

Why are 43% of the world's cultivated lands found in dry areas? And why have decades of development not led to significant improvements?

Rather than improving, it would appear that the situation is getting worse, with more frequent droughts, such as those in Ethiopia and Northern Kenya.

Another important issue that strikes me about drylands is that these areas have been completely neglected despite being the world's home of the poor.

While one international agreement - the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) - has been dedicated solely to the drylands of this world, little attention has been paid by the media, development or conservation organisations, or the international donor community.

The only time attention is paid is when droughts (a regular climatic phenomenon in such lands) are allowed to proceed to famine, which in this day and age can only be the result of political failure.

Humanitarian and food relief follow the TV headlines, creating more dependencies rather than developing viable and sustainable economies.

Dry heat

It is expected that these areas will be hardest hit by climate change in the future.

The influential Stern Review noted that a 3C (5.4F) increase in global temperature was likely to result in an extra 150-550m people becoming exposed to the risk of hunger.

Children sharing a bowl of food (Getty Images)
Drylands are productive, but only if people's way of life is protected

The review also said that climate change was likely to result in up to four billion people suffering water shortages.

The world's drylands are likely to bear the brunt of this gloomy prognosis.

In my opinion, the world will only successfully fight poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) if we pay more attention to these unique ecosystems and learn from the mistakes of the past.

This means moving away from a colonially biased view of drylands.

It is unfortunately still common to equate drylands with deserts and wastelands, as these areas might not look at first sight very productive, especially during a period of drought.

So, what are the ingredients for success in developing the poorest regions of this world?

First of all, development interventions need to be adapted to the realities of drylands.

Crop production, whether rain-fed or irrigated, will always be a limited opportunity. Yet the major effort in "development" is a green revolution for the desert.

Pastoralism is one of the few land use systems that can be compatible with wildlife conservation

Has half a century of development not taught us the reality for cultivation in the drylands?

Livestock is much more suitable to arid environments and more likely to support rural livelihoods in arid regions.

For instance, Turkana pastoralists of Kenya know that livestock is their mainstay, even though they have some of the fastest maturing varieties of sorghum in the world.

Secondly, we should work with the knowledge and institutional systems of the people who have lived there for centuries.

We need to understand why they have complex common property systems for land and resource management that may span and cover very large territories, and guarantee that a variety of stakeholders can use these scarce resources and survive.

It is important to also understand why they place more emphasis on livestock than crops. Livestock is a better converter of biomass in such harsh lands.

We must not sweep aside this knowledge and experience. Instead, we should build on those systems and support them with so-called "modern and scientific knowledge" to improve productivity and create market opportunities.

Devil's claw tubers (Image: Brigitte Schuster/IUCN)
Medicinal plants, such devil's claw, thrive in the harsh drylands landscape

Yet we ignore their complex risk management and resilience enhancement strategies.

One classical example has been the numerous efforts to use inappropriate policies to settle nomadic people and restrict their movements.

Nomadic livestock herding has been a key sustainable survival strategy in the more arid areas. Once grass and water become scarce, these communities move with their animals to the next area.

Thus, they are able to use resources sustainably without leaving themselves exposed to the effects of droughts.

While livestock farming in drylands contributes significantly to national economies, most subsidies go to unsustainable ranching projects rather than the small livestock holders.

National treasures

Pastoralism is one of the few land use systems that can be compatible with wildlife conservation.

Nigerian camel caravan (Image: Daniele Perrot-Maitre/IUCN)
A nomadic lifestyle is one of the few ways to survive in drylands

Yet where are many of the world's national parks? More than 70% of Kenya's are in drylands, which includes a number of important dry season grazing areas for pastoralists.

Dryland peoples depend on the surrounding environment, and they should be able to benefit from conservation through community conserved areas and tourism, rather than having their best lands taken away from them in the name of conservation.

Thirdly, nature's contribution to the survival of the poor needs to be recognised as an important asset.

It is nature that provides food, fodder for livestock, construction material for shelter, medicinal plants, emergency food and climate regulation (shade is highly valued in 40C).

Opportunities for sustainable development exist.

Sudan is the world's largest producer of gum arabic, a principal ingredient of colas and chewing gum, which stems from a 2,000-year agroforestry tradition.

And the arid lands of the Horn of Africa produce the highest quality frankincense and myrrh in the world.

In one district in Botswana that has an average annual rainfall of just 200mm, dryland ecosystem services contributed $190,000 (95,000) to the national income. Almost 50% of this came from wild plants such as the medicinal devil's claw.

Instead of building on this natural capital, development and government interventions tend to replace and disregard them.

Even worse, they are not reflected in the national GDP figures. As a consequence, most policy frameworks provide incentives for their exploitation rather than their sustainable use.

We cannot continue to let the world's poor dryland dwellers down.

Panaceas, history tells us, don't work. Instead, we need to invest in the innovative and sustainable use of natural assets.

Masego Madzwamuse is the IUCN's regional programme development officer and focal person for southern African drylands

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Masego Madzwamuse? Is the international community overlooking the needs of people living in the world's drylands? Are current policies jeopardising centuries of skills and knowledge needed to survive in some of the planet's harshest environments? Or can modern science and technology deliver a sustainable future for all?

I accidently hit upon this article and I was sincerely moved at the pathetic, scary and pitiable conditions of the people living in drylands. I wonder in what context and in what faculty do we have the right to say that the world in general is developing and claims are made on humanitarian grounds.Even though several innovations, discoveries and advancements are made in the field of science and every now and then the world is boasting of achieving unthinkable successes in the same. yet, this simple scientific fact is being ignored that for the betterment and upliftment of the people living in drylands lies in understandibng the ecology , biology and the decades of experiences of the local people there. Not only understanding but taking actions from the outcome with the proper utilisation of their resources and the funds which arise for them.And equally shocking is the negligent and rude attitude of their own government towards these people just for a superficial desire to ! appear sophesticated in teh eyes of the developed world. I totally agree on the views mentiones in this article and it is time for the " world leadres" to wake up before it is too late. We should only blame ourselves if in the near future this world of ours becomes the embodiment of natural calamities, destruction and every incident leading to the end of it. One of the reasons to top of the list would be the total failure to rehabilitate the drylanders even though it was a task that was within the reach of every world citizen.
Bina Patel, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh , India

A great article. Whilst I agree with the points raised here I think there is a fundamental requirement now that requires lots of joined up thinking for not only the people of the drylands to survive but the rest of the planet and its peoples. I would suggest an attack on several fronts. Firstly move the Olympics to a permanent site on the edge of a drylands area and use the opportunity to drive wind power generation, feeding filtering desalination plants to hydrate via canals and waterways areas that are becoming increasingly dry. Built as a permanent solution rather than the short term famine relief that we have seen for the past 40 years. Riding on the back of a world class sporting event this could be the catalyst to solve water supply. The spread of these resources over 20-30 years could make a substantial difference to the areas. If pastorial patterns are to be sustainable then less people must depend on them in the long term. We must therefore build and develop a reliable and sustainable food supply whilst trying to limit both here as in the rest of the world the excessive growth of the human population.
dave , Chatham, Kent, UK

These places were never meant for this many people. Large populations have traditionally congregated around areas which were already suitable for sustaining them. Populations can survive in drylands, but not the kinds of populations we see there now. 70 million people in Ethiopia alone? 5.22 children per woman? Half the population under 14? You can't feed everyone in those kinds of conditions--environment-aware practices or not. As sad as it may be, starvation and death are simply nature's way of reducing overpopulation.
Chris C, Utah, USA

Is there anything sustainably progressively green about capitalism? Capitalism has ripped out the micro and nano climates (which combined create an overall generally greener clime) that hedges and diverse field boundary provide and is thus part of the desertification process. Ancient Egyptian and Greek eco systems were degraded this way. Small field small farm small development is the classic solution to desertification and that requires education AND support. The continual subsidised destruction of small field green field boundary in North America and Europe IS contributing to global warming.
Trickyflyingdave, GB

I work for an organisation (excellent that is developing appropriate technologies for addressing soil and water conservation in semi-arid areas. Sand dams improve a community's resilience to climate change and enable them to develop sustainably. Sand dams are also the cheapest way of providing water in dryland areas; however hardly anyone has even heard of them, including in the development community. Why do we not support more of this kind of sustainable aid intervention, which enables people to get to a situation where they can support themselves, rather than waiting until there is a crisis situation and dropping food in, which only perpetuates dependency?
Sophie, Brentford, UK

Yes,I agree with her .What i need to emphasize at this point is the international community in these regions focuses on promoting aid rather than developing capacities of these communities to tackle weather flactuation.Moreover ,i do believe that if modern technology can be applied there is a possibility to sustain these communities.
Dereje, Addis Ababa,Ethiopia

Years ago on a University field trip to Tunisia we were told that the government was trying to settle the nomadic Berber people because the government was embarassed that they made the country look 'backward' to the tourists. There was no recognition of their skills and contribution to the conservation of the arid region of the country. So this is another aspect that needs to be considered - the national governments desire to to appear modernised & westernised.
Jane, Cardiff

An excellent article and analysis of ecologies and cultures interacting. It needed to be read by policy makes generations ago! BUT: it beg the real question, which it totally ignores. NO policy, strategy or technology is going to be successful anywhere on the planet if populations continue to double every generation or two. Most data indicate that much of the planet is already past a sustainable population with Any quality of life, with foreseeable technologies. Until the population growth is contained, and a humane, workable decline in many areas, all the rest is putting out campfires in the midst of a forest conflagration. As expectations of a first world lifestyle spreads through the growing electronic interconnection world wide, political instability is only going to get worse unless new and obviously more effective political systems replace the present Massively disfunctional ones. For the planet to survive, the population and it's interaction with our home has to be managed as a single, interactive system. Nationalism has been the curse of the last two centuries, and has to be discarded for a larger vision of human welfare and newfound knowledge of the realities of humanity's sustaining biological and geological systems. The next century should be interesting.
bill taylor, Haleiwa HI, USA

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific