Dryland Ecosystems

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  • Through the Dryland Ecosystems Programme, the UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) assists developing countries in dryland areas to better manage their land resources and to achieve sustainable use of their water and biodiversity resources while securing livelihoods and promoting human well-being.

    This is done firstly through research on alternative livelihoods directly explores the challenges dryland communities face in adopting non-traditional livelihoods in order to conserve their scarce natural resources. Such work also relates to enabling policies to facilitate broader adoption of these livelihood approaches. In addition, global synthesis of knowledge on sustainable land management will lead to a broad, worldwide effort to ‘warehouse’ knowledge that is pertinent to sustainable land management and disseminate it effectively to end-users. Further, poverty reduction through capacity development at various scales, ranging from community-based efforts to advanced degree programmes. Capacity development activities will be directly pertinent to poverty-reduction strategies and better integrated natural resource management.


    Negotiations continue on the establishment of a ‘twin’ with Alexandria University, Egypt. Recent political changes in that country have delayed the process substantially but indications are that the university remains an interested party. A key indicator is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in October 2011, which established the basis for joint research activities and for development of collaborative academic programmes.

    Focal Point

    This programme is led by Dr. Richard Thomas, who has extensive experience of working in dryland ecosystems in developing countries and international fora. This experience also enables him to tap into a broad network of individuals, government agencies, multilateral bodies such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and research institutions in developed and developing countries.


    Drylands — comprising deserts, grasslands, and woodlands — cover about 41 percent of Earth’s land surface and are inhabited by more than 2 billion people. Many of these dryland areas face severe land degradation, in which marginal areas are turned into wastelands and natural ecosystems are altered through destruction of surface vegetation, poor management of water resources, inappropriate land use practices, overuse of fertilizers and biocides, and disposal of domestic and industrial wastes. This has serious implications for food security and the livelihoods of between 250 million and 1 billion people across the world. This programme focuses on developing urgently-needed sustainable management strategies for the protection, preservation, reclamation or rehabilitation of drylands. Enabling wise management of water resources and protection of water quality are central to this goal.


    This programme aims to assist developing countries in dryland areas to better manage their land resources and to achieve sustainable use of their water and biodiversity resources. There is a particular focus on development of alternative livelihoods for dryland communities in order to reduce stress on natural systems and improve human well-being. This also ties in closely with poverty reduction in these communities. Success of these livelihoods depends on building capacity of these communities, ensuring support from governments through enabling policies, and providing solutions that fit the social and cultural constraints in those communities. Recent efforts have focused on developing a programme on the economics of ecosystem services and costs of land degradation.


    Project activities in this programme have a strong element of women’s participation within local communities; participatory research in many projects has directly involved women. There is equal attention paid to engaging women researchers and experts, and to enable them to gain leadership roles within UNU-INWEH projects as well as the broader research community.

    Target Audience

    The main audiences are research institutions, government and otherwise, at the national level; academic institutions and universities; community leaders; and policymakers at the national and international levels. The programme activities and outputs are targeted to these distinct groups.

    Intended Impact

    Impact: Influencing policymaking in the United Nations System
    Target: The programme aims to bring desertification issues to the forefront of dialogue on development and poverty reduction in the UN System.
    How: We have led a number of international conferences and seminars that directly engage key elements of the UN system.

    Impact: Contribution to the work of a specific UN agency
    Target: The programme directly contributes to the work of UNCCD.
    How: We create policy-relevant products and outputs that are aimed directly at the members states of the convention. There is a corresponding focus on dissemination and outreach to key stakeholders in the convention’s various mechanisms; for example its Committee on Science and Technology and founding membership of the Dryland Science for Development consortium.

    Impact: Influencing policymaking at the national level
    Target: There is a broader objective to elevate the notion of threats and opportunities related to desertification issues in the international fora.
    How: This programme undertakes broad activities to create international networks focused on drylands. These are, in turn, used to synthesize worldwide knowledge on desertification and sustainable land management in drylands.

    Impact: Capacity development in developed/developing countries
    Target: The programme aims to develop capacity in local communities and research groups in developing countries.
    How: A key method is to emphasize South-to-South learning, in which communities and researchers from developing countries are brought together to share experiences and successes. Such interaction is underpinned by technical and scientific resources to empower these groups. The programme leader sits on the scientific advisory committee of DesertNet International, an association of over 200 international scientists who focus on dryland problems.

    Research Findings

    The findings of the Sustainable Management of Marginal Drylands (SUMAMAD) project will assist in reducing vulnerability to climate change in marginal dryland communities as local practices are improved and new management practices adopted. Further, exploring options for alternative livelihoods will assist local dryland dwellers in reducing their dependency on the land and local resources by introducing alternate strategies for generating income. These findings will be shared at the national level for broader implication.

    The findings from a project on payment for ecosystem services (PES) will provide options on potential PES schemes for improving sustainable livelihoods and income generation for people dependent on natural resources in marginal drylands. An in-depth examination will demonstrate the link between market-based incentive systems and pro-poor environmental benefits. The socio-economic-biophysical linkages will be investigated to provide concrete recommendations as to whether ecosystem compensation mechanisms can act as a positive force for livelihood improvement, environmental conservation and poverty reduction objectives in drylands.
    An economic valuation of land degradation and sustainable land management will demonstrate the costs and benefits associated from poor natural resources management/sustainable land management. The findings will come from several case studies undertaken from different dryland regions around the world.

    Policy Bridging

    Under the SUMAMAD project, local partner research institutions in dryland countries are currently evaluating scenarios of land use change, particularly in the context of climate change. This research will be used in the preparation of policy-relevant guidelines for drylands decision makers  on climate change adaptation strategies. Further, the local SUMAMAD project sites are being used as examples for larger national uptake of options for alternative livelihoods and improved natural resources management practices.

    Under the KM:Land project, a set of globally-relevant impact indicators that were developed together with a conceptual framework were adopted and modified by the UNCCD for their Mandatory Indicators and Metrics Template for use by countries affected by desertification.

    Value Added

    Over the years, this programme has focused on developing a strong network in African and Asian dryland countries, with a particular interest in supporting South-South collaboration and equitable North-South transfer of information and technologies. Such work has provided the incremental push to achieve excellence in research and capacity building. Resources permitting, this effort is now being expanded into dryland regions of Latin America.


    This programme leads a broad, worldwide effort to “warehouse” knowledge that is pertinent to sustainable land management and disseminates this knowledge effectively to end-users. Such efforts are directly linked to a series of publications called the “UNU Desertification Series”,and numerous policy briefs and reports. The development of an online “Learning Network”for the sharing and exchange of information and experiences among experts and practitioners in the SLM community is also being undertaken as part of the wider UNU-INWEH strategy on knowledge management.

    Timeline/Programme Cycle

    This is an ongoing programme, with multi-year projects with distinct start and end dates. Projects are funded through external donors, notably the Flemish Government of Belgium. It is anticipated that the programme activities will continue in the scope of the current strategic plan (2009-2012). As new projects evolve, it will likely be continued beyond that period as well.


    UNU-INWEH employs a well-defined results based management approach that includes gathering of indicators at the programme- and project-level. This is done on an annual basis and the indicators provide trends in improvement, leading to appropriate management responses.


    Bringing together a network of often disparate partners and institutions in developing countries is a challenging undertaking. The programme has generally been successful in fostering these networks.

    Expected Duration

    The programme is expected to run for a duration of 204 months, from 1 January 2004 through 31 December 2020.

  • Activities within the programme will involve cooperation between the UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health and 10 partners:

    • UNU Land Restoration Training Programme
    • UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security
    • UNU Institute for Natural Resources in Africa
    • UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace
    • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
    • Global Environment Facility
    • United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
    • United Nations Development Programme
    • [IWMI] Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
    • International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
  • Title: Economics of Sustainable Land Management
    Publication/Output Type: Policy Brief
    Publisher: UNU-INWEH
    Date Published: 2012

    Title: Safe Use of Wastewater in Water-Scarce Regions
    Publication/Output Type: Policy Brief
    Publisher: UNU-INWEH
    Date Published: 2013

    Title: Sustainable Management in Marginal Drylands
    Publication/Output Type: Policy Brief
    Publisher: UNU-INWEH and UNESCO
    Date Published: 2013

    Title: Understanding Payment for Ecosystem Services
    Publication/Output Type: Policy Brief
    Publisher: UNU-INWEH
    Date Published: 2013

  • Dr. Adeel Zafar, Director
    United Nations University
    Institute for Water, Environment and Health
    175 Longwood Road South
    Suite 204
    Hamilton, Ontario
    Canada L8P OA1

    T: +1 905 667-5511
    F: +1 905 667-5510