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Internal drivers for food insecurity in the Drylands

Inherent poor soils
For various ecological reasons, such as high temperature, wind erosion, and low land cover, drylands generally have poor quality soils. Their structure is very compact due to very low levels of organic matter (0.3–1 per cent in the top 20 cm), and hence their porosity is very weak and does not allow water infiltration. Nutrients in these soils are often leached beyond the first 20 cm. Therefore, when tilling the first 8 to 10 cm, farmers are using the part of the soil with the lowest fertility1.  

Water scarcity
Average annual rainfall in the world’s drylands is less than 650 mm. This rainfall shows extreme spatial and temporal variability, which is expected to continue due to climate change impacts, exposing hundreds of millions of people to more extreme weather events (droughts and floods)2.  The effects of desertification, land degradation and drought may expose almost two-thirds of the world’s population to increased water stress by 2020. These adverse climatic conditions create dire circumstances for poor populations. About 16 per cent of the population lives in chronic poverty, particularly in marginalized rain-fed areas3.  Some 70 per cent of the freshwater available globally is held in the soil and is accessible to plants, and only 11 per cent is accessible as stream flow and groundwater4. Therefore, the ability of soil to store water has a considerable impact on crop production

Land degradation
Studies indicate that the area of land becoming degraded in developing countries increased by an average of 1 per cent per year between 1981 and 20035.  Such degradation of already very poor soils is a serious challenge for people living in drylands, where 41 per cent of the global population live and depend on agriculture as the major source of their livelihood. But this figure is an average and is much higher in specific countries, for instance 81 per cent for Ethiopia, 77 per cent for Eritrea, 70 per cent for Somalia, and 66 per cent for Afghanistan6

Low growth rate on agricultural yields

Global cereal yields rose between 1962 and 2009. However, these trends hide large discrepancies. According to the World Bank7,  the yields in sub-Saharan African countries remained roughly stable over this period. Soil quality directly affects yields, especially in developing countries where poor farmers cannot afford mineral fertilizers. Many studies estimate that nutrient balances in Africa have been negative during the past few decades8.  As the population has increased, traditional soil fertility management techniques, such as letting land lie fallow, can no longer be applied. Marginal lands have to be used continuously, accelerating the vicious circle of land degradation. The yearly loss of income due to the various forms of land degradation in the drylands has been estimated at USD 42 billion worldwide9

Population growth
As shown in figure 1, the world population rose from 2.6 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in 2008, an increase of 134 per cent As a consequence, during the same period, arable land available per capita for countries in the UNCCD annexes decreased by 35 per cent (figure 2); in Africa the decrease was 55 per cent. Even though the overall annual population growth rate in these countries has declined from 2.2 to 1.2 per cent, it is still high in Africa, at 2.4 per cent in 2008. At that rate, the population of Africa will double in 30 years.10 


Figure 1 - Population in UNCCD annexes

 Source: UNCCD; Data: WorldDataBank (<>), accessed August 2011


Figure 2 - Arable land in UNCCD annexes (ha/pers)

 Source: UNCCD; Data: WorldDataBank (<>), accessed August 2011



About 90 per cent of the people living in the drylands are poor.11 Poverty factors have been identified as the major triggers for food insecurity in the developing world.12 The current record high food prices are also creating a situation in which the urban and rural poor face increasing difficulties to access food, which leads to political tensions and even instability. 

Women play a key role in agriculture and in ensuring food security at household level. Women make up 43 per cent, on average, of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, ranging from 20 per cent in Latin America to 50 per cent in Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.13 They are usually in charge of the production of staple foods and the collection of water for family needs, and they have considerable traditional knowledge of local vegetation. However, women in rural areas around the world have one thing in common: they have less access than men to productive resources and to credit. This gender gap imposes costs not only on the agriculture sector, but also on the broader economy and society, and on women themselves.

Malnutrition refers to deficiency or excess of one or more nutrients; undernourishment refers to a shortage of food intake, which makes it impossible to meet daily energy requirements. Malnutrition occurs when the diet is not well balanced between the various kinds of food (proteins, vegetables, fruits). This is quite frequent in drylands where adverse agroecological conditions constrain the cultivation of fruits or vegetables. Diets are mainly based on cereals, occasionally supplemented by some meat. Countries under UNCCD annexes I and II are showing high rates (figure 3). This leads to high levels of malnutrition, especially among children. Malnutrition at an early age leads to reduced physical and mental development during childhood. Stunting, for example, affects more than 147 million pre-school children in developing countries. Iodine deficiency is the world’s greatest single cause of mental retardation and brain damage.14


Figure 3 - Prevalence of malnutrition by UNCCD annex (percentage of children under 5 years old showing insufficient weight for age, average from 2004 to 2009)


Source: UNCCD; Data: WorldDataBank (<>), accessed August 2011.




1   Raunet M and K Naudin. 2006. Lutte contre la désertification : l’apport d’une agriculture en semis direct sur couverture végétale permanente (SCV). Les dossiers thématiques du CSFD. N°4.Septembre 2006. CSFD/Agropolis, Montpellier, France. 40p.
2   Global Impact. Columbia News. <>.
3   Thomas RJ, E De Pauw, M Qadir, A Amri, M Pala, A Yahyaoui, M El-Bouhssini, M Baum, L Iñiguez and K Shideed, Increasing the Resilience of Dryland Agro-ecosystems to Climate Change, SAT eJournal, December 2007, Volume 4, Issue 1, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. <>.
4   Global Environment Outlook GEO 4. Environment for development (2007). Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme. <>.
5   Bai ZG, DL Dent, L Olsson and ME Schaepman. 2008. Global assessment of land degradation and improvement. 1. Identification by remote sensing. Report 2008/01, ISRIC – World Soil Information, Wageningen.
6   <>. 
7   World development report 2008. Agriculture for development (op. 2007). Washington (D.C.): World Bank. <>.
8   Haggblade S and P Hazell (2010) mention the pioneering work by Smaling and colleagues.  Smaling, EMA, JJ Stoorvogel and PN Windmeijer. 1993. Calculating soil nutrient balances in Africa at different scales. SSSA  Special Publication no.51. Madison, Wisconsin, USA. Soil Science Society of America.
9   Dregne HE, and N-T Chou. 1992. Global desertification dimensions and costs. In Degradation and restoration of arid lands. Lubbock: Texas Tech. University.
10   The figure of 2.4 per cent is the overall figure for Africa. In some countries the figure is much higher; in both Niger and Mali it is 3.6 per cent, which would lead to a doubling of the population in slightly less than 20 years.
11   Safriel U and Z Adeel, Ecosystems and human well-being. Chapter 22 - Dryland systems (2005). Washington, DC: Island Press. <>.
12  Sen A. 1981. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
13   The state of food and agriculture. Women in agriculture : closing the gender gap for development (2011). Rome: FAO. <>.


14   5th report of the United Nations Standing Committee on the World Nutrition Situation, 2004, <>.



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