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
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
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.
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
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