"A common misconception is that drylands are lifeless and unproductive ecosystems," said Robin White of the World Resources Institute (WRI) who gave a presentation today on People, Goods and Services in the World's Drylands. "Drylands provide a wide array of ecosystem goods and services that support human, plant, and animal life. These goods and services are frequently overlooked and misunderstood."
Approximately 40 percent of the world's land area is dryland, encompassing savanna, grassland, woodland, and shrubland. Drylands are found on all continents except Antarctica. More commonly recognized drylands include the African Sahel and the Australian Outback. Australia, the United States, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan are the countries with the most extensive drylands.
Drylands are used for the production of food and forage for livestock. Major food crops, such as wheat, barley, sorghum, and millet originated in drylands. They also provide habitat for birds and other wild animals. Drylands serve as storehouses for carbon, helping to limit global warming. These often open, vast, and picturesque landscapes support recreational activities such as hunting, wildlife watching, and tourism.
"Becoming aware of the entire range of goods and services provided by the world's drylands, and developing more timely and accurate indicators, will help us manage these ecosystems more effectively," said Dan Tunstall, director of WRI's information program. "We encourage parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification to adopt this wider, ecosystem view."
The World Resources Institute also called on the UNCCD secretariat and signatories to the convention to:
** Encourage use of the goods and services approach to dryland ecosystems to develop assessments and country-level action plans;
** Collaborate with other international conventions to develop core statistics and datasets that allow monitoring of dryland goods and services; and
** Support analysis of dryland ecosystem goods and services at various geographic scales to ensure sustainable management of these ecosystems. This ranges from the information required by the local herdsman, to regional officials designing watershed management plans, and to global secretariats responsible for implementing international conventions.
WRI's data indicate that more than any other human use today, drylands are used for the production of domestic livestock like cattle, sheep, horses, and camels. These lands also support large numbers of wild herbivores that depend on drylands for habitat.
"While their climates and soils are not very favorable to crop production, drylands still provide food for local populations, especially if managed well," said White. "Misuse, however, can result in disasters like the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains of North America and the decline of the Aral Sea in Central Asia."
Plants and animals have evolved to cope with the climate and variable water supply in drylands. Some adaptations include plants developing deep and extensive root systems; animals may become inactive, use shade, and take cover underground during the hottest times of the day.
The lack of freshwater resources within drylands makes the goods and services provided by surface water, groundwater, and wetlands critically important. Water resources in drylands provide drinking water, irrigation water for food crops, and wetland habitats for flora and fauna.
Since they occupy vast stretches of land, drylands can store large amounts of carbon, most of it in the soil rather than vegetation. Improving the carbon storage capacity of this ecosystem could help to offset global warming by lowering carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
In many countries, drylands generate tourism. Tourists are attracted to the unique landscapes that can feature rocky mesas, as well as to the animals that have adapted to the harsh conditions of this ecosystem. For many indigenous peoples, drylands are culturally and spiritually important.
"Despite their productivity, drylands are fragile environments where overuse can lead to degradation," said White. "Degradation of the world's drylands needs to be addressed to ensure that they continue to provide these valuable goods and services essential to human life."
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The World Resources Institute (http://www.wri.org/wri) is an environmental think tank that goes beyond research to create practical ways to protect the Earth and improve people's lives.