"Arid aquaculture" using ponds filled with salty, undrinkable water for fish production is one of several options experts have proven to be an effective potential alternative livelihood for people living in desertified parts of the world's expanding drylands.
Researchers with the United Nations University, the International Centre on Agricultural Research in Dryland Areas (ICARDA), and UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program say alternatives to traditional crop farming and livestock rearing will need to be put in place in drylands in order to mitigate human causes of desertification.
While it may sound far-fetched, researchers say using briny water to establish aquaculture in a dry, degraded part of Pakistan not only introduced a new source of income, it helped improve nutrition through diet diversification. The researchers also showed it possible to cultivate some varieties of vegetables with the same type of brackish water.
Drylands residents, many of whom are the world's "poorest of the poor," employ "highly vulnerable livelihood strategies that depend on land productivity" warns the report, which describes the success of several occupational options explored in a four-year, multi-country study.
Other promising alternative livelihoods, successfully tested in eight countries, include:
Because they do not primarily depend on land productivity, these and other options have the potential to reduce the pressure on the fragile resource base in marginal drylands, says the report. "At the same time, these strategies proved to yield significantly higher income per investment than traditional land-based livelihoods."
The report, "People in Marginal Drylands: Managing Natural Resources to Improve Human Well-being," summarizes the Sustainable Management of Marginal Drylands (SUMAMAD) project, funded largely by the Flemish Government of Belgium.
The project represents a systematic effort to understand these strategies and apply them to improving livelihood conditions of dryland dwellers with demonstration sites in China, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan.
Project partners included the University of Alexandria (Egypt), the Royal Society of Nature Conservation (Jordan), the Fars Research Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources (Iran) , the Chinese Academy of Sciences and many more national research institutions.
"The key message is that innovations are needed to ensure long-term sustainability of communities and to avoid rapid desertification in the face of growing population pressures," says report co-author Zafar Adeel, Director of UNU's International Network on Water, Environment and Health.
"The question is, what options do people living in these resource-scarce areas have? What this report describes are some of the many realistic livelihood substitutes that can relieve human pressure on these ecosystems, pressures that will only be exacerbated by the onset of climate change."
"At the same time, people living in drylands need more than advice," he adds. "They need help from all quarters and all levels of government to make their future existence in these places possible. The alternative will be a potential migration out of drylands in two or three generations that will stagger the world's coping capacity."
Drylands constitute more than 40% of the global land area and provide a wide range of fundamental ecosystem goods and services. They are home to nearly a third of the global population, about 2 billion in all, over 90% of whom live in developing countries.
Drylands degradation results from a combination of local drivers (droughts, inappropriate irrigation systems, deforestation, overgrazing, and poor land use practices), and global drivers (demography, agricultural policies or global climate change).
Conservative estimates of the extent of desertified drylands range from 10 to 20 percent while a much larger area is at risk.
Reversing desertification "inexpensive"
Says Dr. Thomas Schaaf of UNESCO: "Adopting new, alternative livelihoods is possible with supporting policies and knowledge, and yields income for local communities. It also increases the incentives for dryland communities to better preserve ecosystems around them."
And it need not involve great expense. An investment of only US $6.50 to purchase sewing machines for Bedouin women in Egypt, for example, produced a reported annual income of about US $700.
And, the report adds, when alternative livelihoods start to yield income, one of two results typically occur: traditional livelihoods are gradually replaced or funds are invested to improve land-based livelihoods, such that co-existence of both approaches can be maintained.
The report says producing change requires an enabling policy environment created by government. This policy reform needs to be directly informed by available scientific expertise on dryland management and should be guided by local successes.
It also requires local consultation and involvement in the design and testing of new practices to create a feeling of ownership among land managers and to tap into practical traditional experience and expertise.
As well, it requires help from the international community so that local institutions can develop and enforce informed, coherent and integrated dryland management policies.
When traditional and modern knowledge and practices marry
"Management practices that build on the right mix of traditional knowledge, contemporary technology and innovative scientific research yield optimum results," says Dr. Richard Thomas, Assistant Director at UNU-INWEH, responsible for dryland ecosystems, and a co-author of the report.
Traditional practices, evolved over time for the capture, storage and efficient use of scarce and variable rainwater, floodwaters and groundwater resources, work well in dryland conditions. Examples include the Roman underground cisterns, traditional garden terracing and irrigation systems, and traditional floodwater spreading achieving groundwater recharge.
SUMAMAD researchers demonstrated that traditional designs for water storage cisterns and ponds, for example, can be greatly improved with modern materials and construction techniques.
In parts of Egypt, meanwhile, where well water for drinking is a problem due to high salinity, new desalination technologies using solar energy were successfully introduced, virtually eliminating the cost of buying water and improving health through better water quality.
The study also reports the success of innovative water management techniques used by communities in Tunisia to grow olive trees, the waste from processing olive oil used to improve soil stability.
In the grasslands of China's Inner Mongolia, meanwhile, where cattle and sheep farming has led to severe land degradation, SUMAMAD worked with several families to test chicken farming as an alternative.
The project produced economic returns per hectare for chicken farming nine times higher than for cattle and sheep while fostering natural restoration of the grassland ecosystem which has resulted in the establishment of a growing "grassland" eco-tourism industry.
To support the marketing of chicken and eggs, a company was set up in the area and participating families were trained in entrepreneurship and business principles. Future project plans include producing organic chicken and eggs, in order to tap into growing markets in nearby urban centers like Beijing and internationally.
Policies that Help
Says UN Under-Secretary-General Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of UNU: "A new breed of interventions, developed in partnership with local communities, that combine traditional and contemporary knowledge, hold great promise for offsetting the growing environmental problems in drylands and improving the well-being of all those living in these harsh areas."
"We also need to bridge the divide between the research and policy-making communities to ensure that policies are informed science."
UNU-INWEH has helped create an international coalition – called Dryland Science for Development (DSD) Consortium – which will facilitate the inclusion of scientific information in the inter-governmental dialogue being undertaken by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
Says Dr. Adeel: "These new developments bring a sense of optimism to dryland communities who have lived under the doom and gloom scenarios for their environment over the last 20 years or so."
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