Forests

Increasing tree cover in drylands can ensure food security, solve water crisis

The world’s drylands must be restored as they provide habitat for biodiversity, protect against erosion, help combat desertification and contribute to soil fertility

 
By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Last Updated: Monday 25 July 2016

Life in drylands is precarious and to make things worse water availability in these areas is expected to decline due to changes in climate and land use
Credit: Paul Shaffner/Flickr

A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) preliminary study speaks about the importance of trees and forest cover in dryland areas as these ensure food security for millions of people threatened by climate change.

Drylands cover about 41 per cent of the Earth’s surface and face the problem of water scarcity. People living in drylands, especially in the developing countries, depend on forests, wooded lands, grasslands and trees to meet their basic requirements.

The world’s drylands must be restored as they provide habitat for biodiversity, protect against erosion, help combat desertification and contribute to soil fertility.

According to Nora Berrahmouni, drylands forestry officer at FAO, “Trees contribute to food security. So, increasing their density in forests is very important. It is important to increase their density in drier areas, keeping in mind the local conditions. However, this does not mean that we should convert natural grasslands into forests. Grasslands are equally important as forests.”

Water shortage in drylands

Life in drylands is precarious and to make things worse water availability in these areas is expected to decline due to changes in climate and land use, the report says.

“People in drylands face many challenges. They live in extreme environmental conditions: scarcity of water, periods of drought, heat waves, land degradation and desertification. Poverty, lack of socio-economic opportunities, food insecurity, conflicts, weak governance and inadequate policies are other problems they face,” Berrahmouni added.

Increasing forest cover in drylands will improve water infiltration in soils and reduce erosion. To solve water scarcity, there is a need to manage existing water resources and develop water harvesting techniques, support restoration of forest cover to reduce siltation and water erosion and recharge aquifers.

Diminished status

Dryland forests and other associated ecosystems have not attracted the same level of interest and investment. Tree cover and land use in drylands are not well known. However, drylands cover 6.1 billion hectares, an area more than twice the size of Africa.

“Ninety per cent of drylands are in developing countries, which have hardly the means to assess these vast, remote and harsh areas,” the FAO officer told Down To Earth.

Current technologies have made it possible to access high-resolution satellite imagery through Google Earth Engine to study drylands.

There is also Collect Earth, a tool developed by the FAO, which helps collect, analyse and report data. Combined with the knowledge of experts from specific dryland regions, these techniques have made it possible to assess these areas quickly with low cost.

The FAO assessment of drylands is the first of its kind. This provides a baseline for monitoring changes in dryland forests, tree cover and land use globally as well as regionally.

“This will give information on trends, a good overview, and quick picture making us understand where the problem is,” Berrahmouni said.

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