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Don't desert the drylands

In 2006, the International Year of Deserts and Desertification, a global
initiative called "Oasis" will link and synergise various research efforts for dryland development

DESERTS EVOKE images of hardy people living in rough terrain, and sometimes suffering terribly during droughts. The process of desertification, which causes them to be so vulnerable, often goes unseen. The United Nations wants to eliminate this scourge by making it visible. Thus, it declared 2006 as the International Year of Deserts and Desertification (IYDD) with the catchy slogan "Don't Desert Drylands!"

Efforts at combating desertification have been hampered by some myths. Fifty years ago, the problem began with calls of alarm that the Sahara desert was spreading southwards, swallowing towns and farms in its wake. The images were frightening, but alas, they could not be substantiated later by science. Stakeholders became disillusioned by this false alarm, and it was difficult to regain their confidence and support to minimize dryland degradation. This illustrates one of the many reasons why cutting-edge science should always be a part of major sustainable development programmes.

And that is what the 15 international agricultural research centres constituting the Alliance of Future Harvest Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and their partners have been doing for nearly three decades. This is especially so since the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) were established to focus and synchronise their work on the drylands.

Desertification is a long-term, complex, and hardly noticeable phenomenon adversely affecting the lives and livelihoods of over two billion people living in drylands covering 40 percent of the earth's surface. It ranks among the biggest environmental challenges today, and it is a major impediment to meeting basic human needs. Desertification is caused by a combination of human-induced factors and climate change, a long-term process that leads to land degradation. This decreases agricultural productivity, reduces biodiversity, and degrades the environment. It creates economic, environmental, and social hardship for millions of poor farmers who practice subsistence agriculture in fragile environments.

From being mere victims, dryland farmers need to be empowered to help search for solutions. Much of the knowledge needed to contain desertification resides in their individual and collective experience. As resilient land managers over hundreds of years, they hold one of the keys to achieving more robust livelihoods in these vast landscapes. Yet in putting their knowledge and skills to better use, dryland farmers can blend these with science - another key to successfully combating desertification. The Alliance of future Harvest Centres of the CGIAR and their partners generate and mobilize cutting edge science for dryland agriculture. The Centres pursue an integrated genetic and natural resource management (IGNRM) approach, which synergises the disciplines of biotechnology plant breeding, agronomy, and social sciences with rural empowerment at its core.

For more than 35 years, the Alliance of Future Harvest Centres of the CGIAR and their partners have been globally mobilizing science to combat desertification. Working towards international public goods, CGIAR scientists and partners have been developing a range of agricultural and institutional innovations that address the multifaceted challenges posed by desertification.

These science-based efforts are yielding results in the form of innovations that enable more prudent use of natural resources, and force pro-poor policies that help cope with desertification. The achievements have been worldwide, especially in sub-saharan Africa and south Asia.

The Alliance of Future Harvest Centres of the CGIAR has been using a portfolio of breeding methods to develop drought-tolerant crops for the drylands. For instance, ICRISAT has achieved important gains in improving drought and disease resistance in millet and sorghum, as well as in the leguminous crop chickpea, groundnut, and pigeonpea. These are hardy crops that are a bulwark against hunger and a major source of livelihoods in the drylands. Moreover, India, Nepal, Pakistan and China are rapidly taking up improved pigeonpea and chickpea varieties sourced from ICRISAT.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has been developing resilient resilient rice varieties that can withstand drought yet give high yields. The Institute also introduced aerobic zero-tilled rice. "Through this intervention, the highly water - and labour-demanding conventional puddle transplanting is replaced with zero-tilled direct-sowing systems of rice. This saves 35-40 percent irrigation, without decreasing yields. The IRRI's projects are helping dryland farmers in the Indian subcontinent to improve productivity and fight drought.

Likewise, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and ICRIST, in collaboration with partners, are working to improve the digestibility of stalks by animals in millet and sorghum. This helps dryland farmers have better fodder for their cattle during drought.

Sustainable soil management: In the drylands of sub-saharan Africa, many farmers are so poor they cannot afford to buy and apply appropriate doses of fertilizers. A collaborative research between ICRISAT, the International centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and their partners is encouraging farmers to apply small doses of the most essential fertilizer directly to the plant at the right time. Called "microdosing," this method helps thousands of farmers in western and southern Africa to get their crops to mature faster and overcome the worst effects of drought.

ICRISAT's watershed technologies have helped improve agricultural productivity, farmers' income and ability to cope with drought through the IGNRM. The success of the interventions has resulted in the model being replicated in hundreds of villages in India, China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Through an innovative scheme of South-South cooperation, these innovations are also being shared with East African countries

The International water Management Institute (IWMI) is combining satellite technology, on-the-ground assessments, for drought monitoring and impact management in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and in Central Asia. It is also working at policies for improving groundwater governance and the use of water harvesting as a strategic tool for drought mitigation.

A project being implemented by the International plant Genetic resources Institute (IPGRI) with NGOs and other partners in Mali and Zimbabwe demonstrates how dryland farmers manage and conserve their plant genetic resources to resist drought and desertification. Other CGIAR Centres have been harnessing seed fairs, where farmers share information and experience. They display and swap seeds of the crop varieties they have grown and found successful. The ILRI has been promoting the development of fodder banks in enclosed areas, where forage legumes are grown. In addition to helping reduce livestock pressure on the farmlands, the legumes nourish the soil as they grow.

Since communities have the greatest stake in biodiversity conservation and management, and have the best knowledge of their land, ICARDA is implementing Mashreq and Maghreb projects in eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa. These projects empower local land-users to co-manage their lands with the national governments in such a way that the livelihood needs and the desire to improve long-term sustainability are harmonized.

As oasis in sight: In this International Year of Deserts and Desertification, the Alliance Executive of Future Harvest Alliance of the CGIAR- consisting of the directors-general of the 15 centres - has decided to create a new intercentre programme to combat desertification . Called "Oasis," this initiative will link synergise the centres' research efforts for dryland development. ICRISAT and ICARDA will jointly convene the initiative, along with CIAT, the International Maize and Wheat Research Centre, World Agroforestry Center, the IFPRI, the ILRI and the Africa Rice Centre. Oasis will be unveiled in an inter-center media dialogue to be held in New Delhi today.

So, in answer to the plea - "Don't desert drylands" - we at the Alliance of future Harvest Centres of the CGIAR confirm that indeed we are not. The Centres and their large array of partners, however, are only a thin slice of the total global effort. We must mobilize society at large to combat desertification. With everybody's help, the future can indeed be more like and Oasis than a desert.

SOURCE: The Hindu Newspaper Dated: 24 June, 2006
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