Drylands: volatile, vibrant and under-valued?


Calculating total economic benefits from scarce, variable and unpredictable resources under high temperatures.

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

Could economic valuation of the contributions that dryland ecosystems make to local and national economies enable policymakers to see the people who inhabit these marginal drylands in a new, positive light?

IIED is working with partners to reassess the value of dryland resources. Drylands are not wastelands, but understanding their productivity can be complex.

This understanding requires prediction and tracking of effects on the variable dryland climate and hydrological systems, as well as the formal and informal economies and value chains that they feed. Through this work, we hope to reveal more of the total economic contributions from dryland ecosystems to local and national economies under conditions of variable rainfall and accelerating climate change.

Understanding the full range and extent of value generated (potential and actual values) should encourage decision-makers to invest more in dryland economies. Greater understanding could also help reduce misguided strategies that first create, and then inadequately respond to, impoverishment, avoidable emergencies, and man-made disasters in the drylands.

Decision-makers in drylands need to consider the returns on investments in adaptive water, land and natural resource stewardship. We are developing research methodologies together with partners in local and national institutions who are elaborating, informing and using IIED's research to predict and measure the benefits of these investments.

This collaborative and participatory approach is intended to enable improvements in national systems for the collection and sharing of information to inform decision-making on environmental and development issues in the drylands. It is also intended to build the capacities of young researchers studying in universities in the drylands. The programme has received funding from CORDAID, Ford Foundation, DFID, Danida, and others.

Undervaluation and other misconceptions about people living in drylands and their natural resource management practices influence policymakers in both developing and developed countries.

These misconceptions still persist and are used to justify appropriation of land and water for other uses, such as large-scale land acquisitions, urban development, irrigated agriculture, tourist development and associated conservation areas.

Rather than combating environmental degradation, these schemes have often only caused more of it. Policies dispossessing marginal dryland people of their land and other natural resource wealth perpetuate a vicious cycle of increasing poverty, resource conflict and environmental degradation. These adverse outcomes then reinforce the very preconceptions and mis-diagnoses of environmental problems that they were intended to reverse. 

Large-scale irrigation and agricultural mechanisation, ranching and export-oriented agribusiness all have a track record of short-lived returns but a heavy ecological footprint in the drylands.

The ecological damage that is done inflicts a hidden cost in terms of lost productivity and environmental services. However, these long-term costs are rarely considered, nor ever monitored effectively.

Ongoing work

Changes in the body of evidence concerning the value of drylands under climatic variability and change are under investigation in East Africa (funded through IIED's own internal funds and in collaboration with the DFID-funded Ada Consortium, the County Government of Isiolo and IUCN). This work has focused on the direct use values of climate-dependent ecosystem services, including water.

In West Africa (Mali and Senegal), preparatory work has begun for two regional studies on the economics of resilience and the returns on investments in adaptation through decentralised systems for public finance. This work will be funded through the DFID BRACED project on decentralised climate finance.


Distilling the value of water investments, Caroline King-Okumu (2016), IIED Reflect and Act

Valuing variability: new perspectives on climate resilient drylands development, Saverio Krätli (2015), IIED Report

Inclusive green growth in Kenya: Opportunities in the dryland water and rangeland sectors, Caroline King-Okumu (2015), IIED Issue Paper

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 Report

Valuing pastoralism, Ced Hesse (2014), IIED Briefing

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

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

Additional resources

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

A framework to assess returns on investments in the dryland systems of Northern Kenya, Caroline King-Okumu (2015), IIED Working Paper

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 francais)

Adaptation to climate change: economic value and return on investments (PDF) (en francais (PDF), Near East Foundation publication



The Ford Foundation 

UK Department for International Development (DFID)