Drylands: volatile, vibrant and under-valued?

2006 - 2017

Since 2006, we have done significant innovative work with partners to dispel the misconception that drylands are unproductive, generating evidence on returns from drylands to contribute to positive policy by challenging policymakers' misconceptions that drylands are economically inefficient and environmentally destructive.

The growing economic centre of Merti town on the Ewaso Ng’iro river, arid lands of Kenya (Photo: Caroline King-Okumu)

The growing economic centre of Merti town on the Ewaso Ng’iro river, arid lands of Kenya (Photo: Caroline King-Okumu, IIED)

Policymakers have historically undervalued drylands. As a result, they have either not invested in these areas or invested in the wrong things, using their misconceptions to justify the appropriation, fragmentation and conversion of land and water for other uses, such as large-scale land acquisitions, urban development, irrigated agriculture, tourist development and associated conservation areas.  

But large-scale agricultural irrigation and mechanisation schemes, ranching or export-oriented agribusiness have a track record of short-lived returns with a heavy ecological footprint. And policies dispossessing pastoralists of their land – often their best lands – have perpetuated a vicious cycle of increasing poverty, resource conflict and environmental degradation, reinforcing the preconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding drylands.  

What IIED has done 

At IIED, we set out to demonstrate that drylands are not wastelands; that pastoralists can be resilient to drought and remain productive by grazing over a wide area and seeking out transient nutritious pastures.

To understand the productivity of drylands, we needed to track the effects of their variable climate and water systems, and understand the formal and informal economies and the value chains they feed.  

The lack of an appropriate model for valuing pastoralism and drylands was perpetuating misconceptions and the damaging policies that result from them. So in 2006, we set out to define a framework to reassess the value of dryland economies and demonstrate the significant contribution they make to society.  

We took an existing framework – total economic valuation (TEV) – and applied it to the pastoralist and dryland context. This innovative approach allowed us to calculate total economic benefits from drylands' variable and unpredictable resources. Our aim was to show the economic valuation of the contributions that dryland ecosystems make to local and national economies so that policymakers would view the people who inhabit these marginal lands in a new, positive light.  

In 2013-14, observing that the substantial value of pastoral systems continued to remain largely invisible to local, national and regional calculations of economic performance, a review of the TEV of pastoralism methodology identified gaps in TEV studies. Working in partnership with the Feinstein International Centre of Tufts University and universities in Ethiopia and Kenya, we developed the research methodology for the TEV of pastoralism. As well as integrating our finding into training courses on pastoralism, we produced a practical tool for those interested in carrying out work on the TEV of pastoralism. 

Research outputs 

Between 2013 and 2016, we worked on a number of studies with partners applying the pastoral TEV to different contexts, including: 

  • Quantifying the economic benefits generated by three alternative agricultural systems – pastoral livestock production, cotton and sugar cane estates – in Ethiopia's Awash Valley, an area where traditional grazing lands have been converted into large-scale cotton and sugar plantations since the 1960s. This paper questions the presumption that pastoralism is a primitive, unproductive way of life that poses no credible alternative to modern, technologically advanced and input-dependent forms of irrigated agriculture.
  • Evaluating the contribution that pastoralism – specifically nyama choma (roast meat) – makes to the local, regional and national economies of Tanzania. This study dispels policymakers' misconceptions that pastoralism has little to offer,  examining every stage of the supply chain and nyama choma's contribution to the economy of Arusha municipality in particular and Tanzania as a whole.
  • Evaluating the contribution of pastoralism to Tanzania’s wildlife economy. This study found that wildlife in the country's savannahs ecosystems relies extensively on pastoralist managed lands, immediately adjacent to state protected areas and across the broader landscape.
  • Identifying barriers to resilient drylands in research methodology. This discussion paper explores how researcher and practitioner dependence on outdated analytical tools and practices risks them silently reproducing old theories despite operating in a radically different theoretical horizon of scientific understanding of the drylands.
  • Evaluating the comparative social and environmental advantages of extensive pastoral production systems in nine hard-to-reach pastoral areas in Ethiopia and Kenya. Our study found that camel milk and other pastoral goods and services provide subsistence products and household income, create employment, income opportunities and access to credit along their ‘value chains’, contribute significant revenues to public authorities and support basic service provision in rural towns.
  • Building a profile of direct use values of climate-dependent ecosystem services in the economy of Isiolo County, Kenya, including water for domestic and livestock uses, irrigation and tourism and land under pastoral rangeland and other uses. Our findings highlight the need for an iterative public debate to refine the assignment of values to ecosystem services and enable cost benefit analysis by decision makers. 
  • The importance of valuing vegetation when attaching economic value to pastoralism.


Direct use values of climate-dependent ecosystem services in Isiolo County, Kenya, Caroline King-Okumu, Oliver Vivian Wasonga, Ibrahim Jarso, Yasin Mahadi and S Salah (2016) IIED report  

Vegetation resources and their economic importance in Isiolo County, Kenya, Oliver Vivian Wasonga, John Musembi, Kennedy Rotich, Ibrahim Jarso, and Caroline King-Okumu (2016) IIED Report 

Pastoralism pays: new evidence from the Horn of Africa, Caroline King-Okumu, Oliver Vivian Wasonga, Eshetu Yimer (2015), IIED Briefing Paper 

A house full of trap doors: identifying barriers to resilient drylands in the toolbox of pastoral development, Saverio Krätli, Brigitte Kaufmann, Hassan Roba, Pierre Hiernaux, Wenjun Li, Marcos Easdale, Christian Hülsebusch (2015), IIED Discussion Paper 

If not counted does not count? A programmatic reflection on methodology options and gaps in Total Economic Valuation studies of pastoral systems, Saverio Krätli (2014), IIED Report 

Ungovernable spaces? Rebuilding a resilient pastoral economy in Northern Mali, Jeremy Swift, Saverio Krätli (2014), IIED Briefing Paper | en français

Valuing pastoralism, Ced Hesse (2014), IIED Briefing 

Counting the costs: replacing pastoralism with irrigated agriculture in the Awash Valley, north-eastern Ethiopia, Roy Behnke and Carol Kerven (2013), IIED Working Paper 

Natural conservationists? Evaluating the impact of pastoralist land use practices on Tanzania's wildlife economy, Fred Nelson (2012), IIED Report 

Arid waste? Reassessing the value of dryland pastoralism, Ced Hesse and James MacGregor (2009), IIED Briefing 

Tracking the real value of pastoralism, Ced Hesse (2009), Reflect & Act

Estimating the economic significance of pastoralism: The example of the nyama choma sector in Tanzania, Juliana Letara, James MacGregor and Ced Hesse (2006) IIED and RECONCILE report 

Pastoralism: drylands' invisible asset? Developing a framework for assessing the value of pastoralism in East Africa, Ced Hesse and James MacGregor (2006), IIED Issue Paper | en français