The dry areas of the developing world are characterized by a relentless shortage of water and commonly suffer from land degradation. In addition to these inhospitable conditions, most of the world’s poor live in dry areas, including 400 million “poorest of poor” who survive on less than US$1 per day.
Among the 2.5 billion people living in dry areas, about one-third depend on agriculture for their food security and livelihoods. Dryland food production systems cover about three billion hectares, or 41% of the Earth’s total land area, and they use a highly diverse mix of crops for food, feed and fiber derived from rangeland and pasture species - as well as trees, fish, and livestock.
The crop-based ecosystems in which dryland agriculture operates are challenging environments because of several biophysical and socioeconomic constraints. Biophysical constraints include drought, floods, temperature extremes, salinity, marginal soils, loss of biodiversity, and high vulnerability to land degradation. Socioeconomic constraints include poverty, social inequity, poor access to technology, underdeveloped markets, high population growth, and weak institutions. As a result of these many constraints, dryland agricultural systems in the developing world produce much less food, fuel, and fiber than is possible and, more importantly, much less than is needed by the growing populations who depend upon them for their food and livelihoods.
Reliance on imports
Because of the poor productivity of dryland systems, developing countries in the dry areas have had to rely increasingly on imported grain and other foodstuffs to meet their basic food needs. Arab countries, for example, are the largest importers of cereals in the world.
Countries in the dry areas have also witnessed much greater rises in food prices, in proportion to their income, than the rest of the world during recent food price spikes. As a result, the poor have suffered significantly more than people who have to use a smaller portion of their income to buy food. Increased dependence on imported food and higher food prices have become real threats to food security and livelihoods, and are putting the poor and vulnerable at particular risk.
To make matters worse, almost all global climate change models, and changes experienced over the last 20 years, predict that climate change will hit the dry areas of the world hardest, compounding the biophysical and socioeconomic stresses they already endure - particularly in North Africa, sub- Saharan Africa (SSA), and West Asia.
Consequences of no action
The benefits of sustainably increasing the productivity of dryland systems include reduced poverty, better food security, improved health and nutrition, conservation of natural resources, and reduced social injustice.
The repercussions of inaction, however, must be frankly stated and made clear to more affluent nations: the consequences of failing to address poor productivity in dryland systems include further land degradation and loss of biodiversity, more poverty, increased food insecurity, poorer nutrition, rising unemployment, rural exodus, and even greater social inequality. None of these bode well for political stability, as recent events in some of the dry areas illustrate.