Restoration of degraded dryland ecosystems: Enhancing land productivity and sustainable livelihoods in Africa

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, Mrs Inger La Cour Anderson

By Nesia Mhaka

Ever since artisanal miners’ invasion of Zimbabwe’s vast mineral resources and landscapes seeking instant riches or rather survival from gold and chrome deposits, or just trying to ease the jaws of biting economic conditions, land degradation has consumed a significant chunk of the country’s productive land and waterways.

Hence, if Zimbabwe needs to move ahead productively and sustainably within the confinements of environmental protection, there is serious need to consider restoring lost dryland hectarage to their original status.

The restoration of lost dryland landscapes and decimated forests should be at the forefront of African countries’ major policy blueprints and would go a significantly long way towards mitigating the vices of climate change that are unleashing themselves undesirably from all directions and fronts.

This would also support forest re-generation and restoration of carbon sinks underground, with enough potential to support eco-systemic growth, culture and preservation.

Drylands are actually a unique type of ecosystem characterised by water scarcity and low precipitation and they cover 41 percent of the world’s land surface while hosting nearly one-third of its human population, 50 percent of the world´s livestock and a vast array of unique and well-adapted wildlife.

Such land was traditionally used and managed by pastoralists through communal or common property rights-based land tenure systems before being vandalised by illegal miners.

Many of them (drylands) have a history of being overgrazed and degraded with low productivity and populations depending on them are recurrently struck by droughts and famines, subjected to economic and political marginalisation and commonly faced with enduring resource conflict.

However, just because these regions are dry does not mean that they are barren, they are still productive landscapes with considerable economic potential and environmental value but the monitoring and rehabilitation of dryland ecosystems has not attracted as much attention as other ecosystems, such as rainforests.

In many African countries, drylands are vulnerable yet they are being neglected. Climate change, unsustainable land use and increasing water scarcity are all causing drylands to degrade beyond repair, affecting ecosystems, harming biodiversity, reducing land productivity and limiting the production of crops, plants and livestock, all of which make life harder for the communities who live there.

Why then should drylands be a priority?

Because a quarter of the world’s forests are in drylands; It may surprise one to know, but more than a quarter of the world’s forests are located in drylands.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s latest Dryland Assessment report, trees are present on almost a third of the world’s dryland regions, equalling 1.1 billion hectares of forest.

These trees and forests are hugely important for the planet as they provide habitats for biodiversity, protect land against wind erosion and desertification, provide shade for crops, animals and people, help water penetrate soils and contribute to soil fertility.

The rest of drylands aren’t just desert either, 25 percent of global drylands are grassland and 14 percent is cropland.

Protecting drylands protects biodiversity as drylands are home to more than a third of global biodiversity hotspots and provide critical migration points for birds.

In Northern Africa’s Sahara Desert, owing to its location at the crossroads of the Atlas Mountains, the Nile River and the desert, the region has rich biodiversity with many endemic species.

In Eastern Africa’s dryland areas, vegetation ranges from woodlands, where trees can reach up to 15 meters in height, to hyper-arid landscapes with few shrubs.

How does restoration of drylands promote sustainable development?

Land restoration addresses poverty eradication in two ways, firstly, restoration activities generate employment, thus improving the socio-economic conditions of the poor and secondly, the restored land supports increased future production as well as improved ecosystem services such as better water and air quality.

The restoration of degraded landscapes including forests, agricultural fields, wetlands and mainland marine ecosystems has proved critical to poverty eradication. Importantly, land restoration activities help to increase soil fertility, thus enhancing crop production and reducing malnutrition.

The productivity of a landscape and quality of life of the poor are inextricably linked. Indeed, for some of the rural poor, forests, scrubland and riparian ecosystems are the main source of life-supporting goods and services, they are sources of wood fuel, drinking water, medicinal plants and food and improve air quality.

In dry parts of Africa, drought-tolerant fruit trees are life-saving sources of food during dry spells. Higher water quality in rivers is often due to reduced silt-loads associated with well-managed watersheds. This reduces the cost of treating water for city water supplies and the incidence of water-related diseases.

Speaking at the Africa Global Landscape Forum early this month, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Ms Inger Anderson challenged policy makers and other environmental stakeholders to put in laws which will support the restoration of drylands in Africa.

She said that protecting ecosystems is in line with year 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“This conference is a great opportunity to start delivering on sustainable development goals for us to create a world of prosperity, equality and peace.

“Policy makers and environmental authorities have to implement laws which will support the sustainable management and restoration of the environment including drylands,” she said.

She says that protecting the environment needs a joint approach system to achieve one goal.

“Participants had several topics in the community segment where they chatted the way forward on how restoring Africa’s drylands can be a success.

“The role of indigenous people in protecting landscapes must not be ignored because the protection of landscapes requires a multifaceted approach in which all parties are involved and indigenous people are equally important to achieve good results in the restoration process,” she said.

Climate change scientist in the Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Zimbabwe, Mr Lawrence Mashungu added that drylands occupy more than a third of all the world’s land and the most degraded or severely degraded.

“…. Drylands are also home to an equivalent proportion of humanity, and a disproportionate number of the world’s poorest people. But with the right support, there is also much potential to rapidly reduce poverty, increase ecological and economic resilience, and climate change mitigation through soil carbon sequestration.”

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