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Drylands too conserve biodiversity
By Rina Mukherji

The animals, birds and biomes in dryland regions provide spectacular examples of adaptation to scarce water resources.

Camels are known for their drought resistance (source: IUCN)

Drylands are lands where the potential amount of water that is transferred to the atmosphere is 1.5 times greater than the mean precipitation. Drylands cover over 41 per cent of earth’s surface, and include a wide range of ecosystems, including Mediterranean types, cold deserts, and hot deserts. Despite their relative aridity, drylands harbour a great deal of biodiversity, influenced by both climate and latitude.

Variations in topography, geology, soil type, seasonal patterns of rainfall, fires, herbivore pressure, and human management, along with water scarcity, account for a wide diversity of species in the drylands. More than 30 per cent of the world’s cultivated plants and many livestock species originate in the drylands. The wild grasses that became wheat and barley originated in south-west Asia, in the Thar desert of India, and so did millets - the bajra and jowar, which were the first plants to be cultivated by man. Maize, squashes and beans originated in Mexico, while wild potatoes came from Peru. Drylands also provide important habitats for many unique species that are of global conservation concern - such as the Saiga antelope of the Asian steppe, the Jerdon’s Courser of Andhra Pradesh and southern Madhya Pradesh, the Carpentarian Rock Rat of northern Australia, and the amphibians of the South American Andes.

However, increasing desertification and poor monitoring of drylands have contributed to 32 per cent of the world’s dryland species - across all biomes - standing on the verge of extinction. This may be also due to the desert areas enjoying far better protection as compared to the temperate grasslands, only 4-5 per cent of which enjoy protection. The animals, birds and biomes in dryland regions provide spectacular examples of adaptation to scarce water resources.

Take the case of the mist oases found in East Africa, and the Arabian and Sahara desert. The most overlooked source of water is the hot desert air. As hot air rises up and cools down, the stored humidity is released through condensation. When air heated during the day cools down at night, there is dewfall in the desert. In places, this dewfall often surpasses rainfall. Regular mist results in mist oases in the desert. Such mist oases in the Sudan and Egypt harbor unique ecosystems that are never found anywhere else. The abundance of moisture in Jebel Alba in Egypt supports 458 plant species, which amounts to 25 per cent of the total plant species found in the country. Besides, 1/3 rd of all endemic bird areas, that is  31 per cent, and important bird areas (33 per cent) are found in the world’s  drylands.

More than 30 per cent of the world’s cultivated plants and many livestock species originate in the drylands. The wild grasses that became wheat and barley originated in south-west Asia, in the Thar desert of India, and so did millets - the bajra and jowar, which were the first plants to be cultivated by man.

One notices 4 broad categories of adaptation in dryland areas:

Drought escapers

These comprise animals migrating in search of water, or insects escaping into the egg or pupal stage until wet weather returns.

Drought evaders

These comprise plants like the salt bush that develop deep and efficient root system and reptiles that bury themselves underground to avoid the heat.

Drought resistors

These comprise cacti that store water in trunk, and camels that minimize water loss.

Drought endurers

Plants in this category go dormant, or else, frogs aestivate.

There are however, certain dryland creatures that deserve special mention. Termites number thousands of species in dryland habitats, and the colonies build by these social creatures are important components of dryland ecosystems. Termites follow a cooperative system of caring for their young, and distribution of labour.  Termites influence soil characteristics through their nesting, foraging and feeding behavior.  Their colonies incorporate galleries, mounds, and fungus chambers, and are built by digesting cellulose, and by breaking down littering and creating conditions for improved microbial action . Their ability to digest cellulose is of particular significance since cellulose represents half the biomass synthesized by plants. Termites also accelerate rehabilitation of soil by breaking up soil crust, increasing porosity, thus improving water infiltration and enhancing water holding capacity.

As a result, termites end up improving root penetration and vegetative cover in dryland regions. Thus, they contribute significantly to the global carbon cycle, and carbon sequestration.

Dryland people, of course, exemplify the best in adaptation. Whether they be the desert pastoralists of Rajasthan, or the Dogon of Mali or the Bushmen of the Namib desert, the respect for basic resources is part and parcel of their culture. Hundreds of years of taming the drylands have made communities living in these regions swear by land-use practices that preserve native cultivars, maintain crop varieties, and enhance agricultural production in periods of low rainfall. It also involves planting nitrogen-fixing trees that improve soil fertility and low tillage farming. The most widespread land-use practice, that is pastoralism, is inherently suited to drylands. Dryland pastoralism relies on herd mobility to track the high seasonal variability in vegetation and resources, and the spread of seeds and manure by animals and birds.

Pastoral mobility may involve both nomadism and transhumance, depending on the aridity of the lands. For instance, in northwest India, in the Marwar region of Rajasthan, we find transhumance to be the norm, while in the cold deserts of Mongolia, nomads are aplenty.

Dryland people exemplify the best in adaptation. Whether they be the desert pastoralists of Rajasthan, or the Dogon of Mali or the Bushmen of the Namib desert, the respect for basic resources is part and parcel of their culture.

Communities are found to protect large regions of these drylands all over the world - whether it be in India or Mali. The greatest regard one finds is for water and natural resources. This translates into practices that involve protecting catchment areas to make the most of limited rain, and building simple structures out of the most appropriate local material to harvest rain, and store water for year-long use.

In the north African and Arabian desert, for instance, a pre-Islamic practice-Hima-is practiced to this day. Hima is an Arabic word that stands for “a protected place.” It signified a protected pastureland that was set aside seasonally for regeneration and was built on respect for nature in the belief that humans were trustees of this earth.  The practice was based on sound local governance and co-existence with nature. In the arid Mopti region of Mali that lies on the southern bank of the Niger river, one finds an ethnically mixed population of crop farmers, pastoralists , fishermen, bee-keepers and others collectively managing resources on the basis of historical negotiations between the different ethnic groups dating back to the hoary past.

Nationalization of natural resources by the government, and resulting distrust between communities and the government had caused the breakdown of this system, causing degradation of water sources and pastures. Following the introduction of a decentralization policy by the Mali government in 1991, and recognition of local resource management arrangements, landscape restoration and protection has grown exponentially in recent years, testifying to the collective wisdom of the dryland peoples.


However, the desire to use methods suited for wetter regions to rehabilitate drylands, and canals to irrigate them, and planting of exotic species has taken their toll on them. Overgrazing and population pressures have also added to the crises. In South Africa, the introduction of buffel grass and black wattle to prevent degradation has played havoc with the water resources in regions that are otherwise water-stressed, and replaced native species in 10 million hectares. Mesquite, a tree that grows best in water-stressed conditions was introduced to fight land degradation in Africa, South Asia and Arabia, has now driven out native species, including valuable grasses and vegetation that animals graze on. In India, the Indira Gandhi canal in Rajasthan has played havoc to local dryland biodiversity, with wet conditions affecting the habitat of local species. Change in land use, population pressures and irrigated farms opting for species that demand more water has led to the loss of many indigenous species of shrubs and grass.

With climate change, the drylands of the world are facing their worst crises. This year, as most of India faced a huge deficit in monsoon rain, the desert regions of Rajasthan received a mere one-day drizzle. Increasing desertification will certainly threaten the food security of many more people the world over. But then, the solution does not lie in greening drylands and deserts by using development pathways modeled on humid areas.

Conservation strategies, instead, ought to complement indigenous community-driven approaches for best results. Legitimizing local institutions can not only remove inequities in governance and development, but help protect biodiversity and prevent loss of species. Development strategies will also need to incorporate high value dryland products such as honey, desert truffles and desert beans in plans meant to reclaim the drylands.

Written by a team of IUCN experts headed by Jonathan Davies, and including  Lene Poulsen, Bjorn Schulte-Herbruggen, Kathy Mackinnon, Nigel Crawhall, William D Henwood, Nigel Dudley, Jessica Smith, and Masumi Gudka , Conserving  Dryland Biodiversity-is arguably the most comprehensive work on the world’s drylands to date, and makes a plea for tackling land degradation using the most practical methods possible.

Extensive in its treatment, well-illustrated and conceived, the book cites practical examples such as the building of a “Green Wall” by 11 Sahelian countries for checking desertification , to suggest an alternative approach  to land health in uncertain environments .  One only hopes that the work succeeds in generating greater respect for the ingenuity and knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the world, and gets governments to realize that a “top down” method can never ensure food and water security for their populations.  Conserving drylands can be our only guarantee in a warmer world increasingly fraught with natural disasters, extreme temperatures and droughts due to climate change.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Rina Mukherji  |  rina.mukherji@gmail.com

Rina Mukherji is a writer, poet and journalist. She is a keen commentator on issues concerning marginalized communities, environment and development. She is based in Kolkata.

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