Arid lands ecosystem and climate change: Livelihoods of more than one billion people are at stake

How can the impact of climate change on arid lands and on the poor people living in such areas be minimized and their sustainable livelihoods protected?

This was the subject of a UNFCCC COP15 side event organized by IFAD on 11 December, within the framework of the IIED Development and Climate Days.

The Dr Byen University setting, only two metro stops from the Bella centre where the Copenhagen Climate Change negotiations were taking place, provided a perfect setting for bringing together a large number of participants, observers from the negotiations and academicians from the University, and foster a constructive discussion on the implications of climate change in arid lands.

The panel consisted of members from International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Global Mechanism (GM). The session was chaired by Rodney Cooke, Director of IFAD's Technical Advisory Division.

The event provided a unique opportunity to share IFAD’s own experience in integrating climate change issues in project portfolio through Country Strategic Opportunities Papers (COSOPs) such as that in Viet Nam and Chad as well as environmental screening of IFAD projects and the development of IFAD’s corporate strategy towards the mainstreaming of the climate change dimension in its project activities. The event also highlighted the relevance of drylands ecosystems with regards to rural development, and addressed the specific impact of climate change on these particularly fragile environments. Panelists discussed how climate change resilience can be promoted in arid lands ecosystems, through investments or otherwise.

Atiqur Rahman, Policy Coordinator, opened the session by providing a detailed overview of the magnitude of the problem, and addressed the adverse impact of climate change on the more than one billion people whose livelihoods largely or totally depend on arid lands ecosystems. He outlined four sets of issues which were then discussed in details by the other four panelists.

Peter Holmgren, Director, Environment Climate Change and Bioenergy Division , FAO, discussed the potential for mitigation in arid areas, notably through sustainable land management, afforestation, and agroforestry.

Ced Hesse, Principal Researcher, Climate Change, IIED, gave a vivid account of the crucial social and economic role played by pastoralists in Africa’s drylands. He emphasized their importance in ensuring economic development, sustainable land management and peace in a changing, increasingly unstable and variable environment.

Nadim Khouri, Director of IFAD’s Near East and North Africa Division, emphasized the need to build on vulnerable people’s own livelihoods strategies to devise efficient investments under harsh climatic conditions. He stressed the urgent need for better models to be developed in order to be able to predict the impact of climate change, specifically for arid areas, and for countries and rural communities to internalize such models in their development strategies.

In the concluding intervention, Alejandro Kilpatrick, GM’s Programme Coordinator for Latin America and for the Climate Change Programme, highlighted the value of drylands, to be seen in its economic, social , and financial dimensions. He gave a detailed overview of the current and anticipated sources of funding available to arid land ecosystems, and their relevance in addressing the adverse impact of climate change in these areas.

The presentations were followed by an interesting discussion with members of the audience. Issues were raised on the possibility of using local and indigenous knowledge and whether large scale investments could crowd out local initiatives which provided the backbone of autonomous adaptation for centuries, the need to adjust to increasing variability of climate both in terms of institutional development as well as using flexible project designs, the use of land rights and access to resources in innovative ways to overcome the ‘tragedy of the commons’, the developing early warning systems, and the reuse of wastes through anaerobic systems.

Most of the populations living in drylands are, in fact, amongst the poorest of the poor: investing in drylands is therefore crucial, and so is the recognition of the value of drylands ecosystems and traditional activities such as pastoralism.

The chairman concluded the session pointing out towards the opportunities to harness financing for climate change in support to drylands, both from the carbon market and from the funding for adaptation to climate change, but there is a need to better position the issues at stake into the development agendas of donors and governments. The UNFCCC COP might identify more opportunities that are emerging, such as REDD, REDD+ and adaptation funding.

Atiqur Rahman