Valuing variability

Dryland communities have learnt to harness the variability of their highly unpredictable environments to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems. In the face of climate change, development policy everywhere should draw on their knowledge and experience.

Article, 17 December 2012
Drylands: building climate resilience, productivity and equity
A programme of work showing how IIED is building capacity to act on the implications of climate change for equitable and climate resilient development in the drylands
A male shepherdwith a stick leads dozens of sheep winding behind him on a dusty trail

A shepherd leads their flock. In most mobile pastoral systems, routine mobility peaks with abundance of pasture and water, not scarcity (Photo: copyright Kalyan Varma)

Production strategies in pastoral and dryland farming systems work with environmental variability to ensure relatively stable outcomes and in more specialised systems, have even turned it into an asset to maximise productivity. But perceiving it as a hindrance, drylands policy has long worked against – rather than with – variability.

Promoting development interventions that externalise the natural environment, this policy approach exacerbates environmental variability, the very characteristic it considers problematic in the first place.

A failed approach

Today’s problems in the drylands are not all due to erratic and variable rainfall. Many are the legacy of ill-conceived ‘solutions’ informed by the belief that a dry and variable climate constrains productivity and compels communities to over-farm or over-graze the land.

Development interventions in the agricultural sector have largely focused on bringing order and stability to food production systems by externalising the variability of the natural world through high energy interventions such as large-scale irrigation, ranching and export-oriented agribusiness.

But introducing artificially stable environments for agricultural production and food security at scale has come at great cost. Not only does it undermine pastoral and dryland farmer livelihood strategies and their ability to manage environmental variability including periodic droughts; the heavy ecological and carbon footprint associated with high external inputs required to eliminate environmental variability from the production process contributes to climate change.

Attempts to replace local land use practices with imported techniques have also served the political and economic interests of powerful groups. For the people of the drylands, they have exacerbated poverty, degradation and conflict, increasing their vulnerability to climate variability and extreme climate events and reinforcing misconceptions about drylands.

A sustainable system

Scientific evidence demonstrates that pastoralism is an ecologically efficient, sustainable system that creates substantial economic value with minimum external costly inputs.

Pastoralists and dryland farmers have shown that they can stabilise productivity in highly variable environments by matching variability in rainfall, soil fertility and other factors with variability in production strategies.

In practice, this means keeping options open to compensate for operating in an environment characterised by high uncertainty. For example, pastoralists use strategic mobility to access the variable distribution of nutritious pastures that vary in time and space.

Dryland farmers will grow multiple crops of different varieties with different moisture needs and production cycles, often scattered over multiple fields to match the variability of rainfall in time and space.

Policies that embrace variability

With the right support, the drylands can provide cost-effective, climate-resilient livelihoods for local communities.

Policymakers and development actors must therefore stop seeing the variability of nature as a problematic anomaly and recognise instead its pervasive presence and the opportunities it offers to those who invest in developing the knowledge and skills to match its pace.

Considering variability as a constitutive element of the dryland ecosystem rather than a disturbance opens up new options by changing the way we see drylands livelihood systems and our understanding of small-scale food production systems there.


Valuing variability: new perspectives on climate-resilient drylands development, Saverio Krätli (2015), Book | 中文 

A review of China’s rangeland management policies, YanBo Li, Gongbuzeren and WenJun Li (2014), IIED country report

New perspectives on climate resilient drylands development: refining the arguments, Various (2013), IIED workshop report 

Global public policy narratives on the drylands and pastoralism, Saverio Krätli (2013), IIED briefing paper

Rainfed agriculture for an inclusive, sustainable and food secure India, Srijit Mishra, A. Ravindra and Ced Hesse (2013), IIED briefing paper

Moving beyond the rhetoric: the challenge of reform in Kenya’s drylands, Michael Ochieng Odhiambo (2013), IIED briefing paper

Pastoralism: the custodian of China’s grasslands, Wenjun Li and Gongbuzeren (2013), IIED briefing paper

Media perceptions and portrayals of pastoralists in Kenya, India and China, Mike Shanahan (2013), IIED report

Following the herd: why pastoralism needs better media coverage, Mike Shanahan (2013), IIED briefing paper

Ecology, equity and economics: reframing dryland policy, Ced Hesse (2011), IIED opinion paper 

Additional resources

Blog: Devolved climate finance approach forges new ways of working between citizens and state, by Sam Greene (May 2018)

Blog: Insuring against climate risk in Kenya, by Vincent Mutie Nzau (June 2017)

News: New film shows Chinese mountain communities protecting biocultural heritage (March 2017)

Blog: Funding local adaptation in Kenya: nationally vs. locally managed funds, by John Nyangena (December 2016)