Dry lands are on the frontline of climate change,
and they host the world’s poorest and most
vulnerable people. The harrowing effects of climate
change on poverty, survival, health, hunger, human
well-being, and peace, itself, can already be seen
in them. The heavily impacted areas are among the
most unstable parts of the world.
A significant portion of the world suffers from
great vulnerabilities including poverty and
deprivation of basic needs, whether food and
nutrition, access to health and veterinary care,
safety for crops and livestock, or, of course,
Instability is rising throughout these regions.
Conflicts that are branded under the headlines of
extremism or political conflict, often have at their
roots the challenges of desertification, increasing
droughts, more unstable rainfall, many more failed
harvests than in the past, and, in some regions, an
inability to grow crops reliably any longer.
Recurring famines in the Horn of Africa are vivid
and harrowing demonstrations of the perils of
desertification and dry land instability.
Population has also increased fourfold or more in
such regions since the middle of the 20th century.
Climate change is hitting massive demographic
pressures head on as an enormously threatening
phenomenon. Yet, these issues are not getting the
level of global policy attention and response
required. Even standard security approaches do not
take into account that, under the surface of the
manifestation of violence and conflict, lays a much
deeper and even more threatening danger of
ecological risk from climate change and demographic
Military engagement is not working, because such
issues as hunger, livestock survival, and increasing
stresses between sedentary populations and nomadic
or semi-nomadic livestock herders cannot be
addressed by these means. The world has not seen a
coherent, consistent, persistent, scaled, and
science-based approach to these challenges,
primarily because the resources and political
attention have not been devoted to them.
Certainly, different kinds of responses are needed.
Science is one such instrument.
There is not truly a thorough understanding of how
global and regional changes are really affecting the
climates of the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, or West
and Central Asia. One priority is a thorough,
state-of-the-art, and detailed account of how
regions are feeling the global climate signals.
Downscaled models and better evidence about what the
large models are saying about future threats for
these regions are drastically needed. It is also
essential to mainstream the authoritative collection
of weather station data, to make it available to
compile a detailed and thorough account of the
climate over the last thirty years, and to create
not just a baseline for the future, but a much
richer base to enable the attempt of the attribution
of observed changes.
There are huge gaps in the existing knowledge base
of the adaptation or failure to adapt of human
Of course, the secretariat of the UN Convention to
Combat Desertification (UNCCD) collects a lot of
this information and, crucially, helps disseminate
it to the wider scientific and development
community. But, there is a lot more work to be done
to get on-site real-time verification of changes; to
use remote sensing more systematically to measure
fluctuations in herders, livestock, and assets; to
understand their vulnerabilities; and to see how
demographic pressures are affecting these
Total fertility rates remain at six, seven, or eight
children a woman in many locations. A demographic
disaster seems to be on the way, as a result of the
huge overload on an already strained and fragile
ecosystem that is only going to become more stressed
in the future. Widespread family planning and modern
contraceptive services need to be put in place to
mitigate the crash between expanding populations and
the future climate.
Intervention measures are desperately needed for
adaptation to climate change. These range from
preparedness for emergencies to other kinds of risk
mitigation strategies, such as creating financial
insurance, diversifying economic activities, or
establishing alternatives in landscape management
and water storage.
Impoverished communities facing a multiplicity of
shocks and challenges need a holistic approach. One
aspect is the whole complex of livestock and crops.
Health systems include other aspects, which are
affected by tremendous climate-related shocks as
well as by such huge challenges as epidemics of
malaria; education is also crucial.
How can impoverished communities ensure that the
next generation is raised with the skills and
knowledge to meet the growing challenges facing
Investment in infrastructure, starting with water,
encompassing irrigation, storage, and water security
in the event of drought but also including
transport, the ability to connect local communities
with regional and international markets, is
desperately needed. Telecommunications and Internet
connectivity can be very powerful tools for
adaptation. No less important is business
development, especially around livestock and other
areas where increased added value could bring
greatly improved well-being to communities.
In 2008, the Swedish government’s Committee on
Climate Change and Development (CCD) put out a
report on climate change, recommending how to build
resilience, adaptability, emergency preparedness,
and risk mitigation strategies. There should be
scaled-up pilots of community-based adaptation
projects with poor and vulnerable communities in
urban and rural areas, it proposed.
Three years on, projecting is starting to take hold,
as Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, and
South Sudan have joined together in an adaptation
initiative. They will work to use best practices and
cutting-edge technologies to support their
pastoralist communities’ efforts to escape the
scourges of extreme poverty and famine, supported by
partners including Ericsson, Airtel, Novartis, and
There is a pressing need for holistic,
community-based responses, which are
scientifically-grounded and address health and
veterinary needs, water storage and other
infrastructure, children’s education, improvement
and survival of herds, and linkages to markets. This
is of paramount and growing importance, not only for
the well-being of these communities, but for
resolving what otherwise will be a growing epidemic
of violent conflict.