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The world’s deserts represent unique ecosystems which support significant plant and animal biodiversity, particularly with respect to adaptations for survival in arid conditions. Various human societies have also been established in deserts throughout history, and today deserts are an important part of the world’s natural and cultural heritage. Deserts are also diverse landscapes, contrary to the common notion of vast swathes of endless sand; for example, the FAO-UNEP Land Cover Classification System has identified over seventy classes of desert land cover in Egypt alone.

Desertification – the degradation of drylands due to factors including climatic variations and human activities – is among the most serious environmental challenges facing the world today. Deserts cover a total of over 19 million square kilometres, representing almost 15 per cent of the terrestrial surface of the planet, and are currently home to some 144 million people. At the same time, poverty affects many of the people living in deserts. Moreover, desertification is a truly global problem, affecting areas and populations outside of drylands. Dust from the Gobi and Sahara deserts has, for instance, been linked to respiratory problems in North America and has affected coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea.

It is against this backdrop that the UN General Assembly has declared 2006 to be the International Year of Deserts and Desertification (IYDD). The international community is deeply concerned by desertification, its implications for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, and the need to raise further awareness of the issues.

UNEP, as part of its global environmental assessment programme, and as a contribution to IYDD, has undertaken this global assessment of deserts. The Global Deserts Outlook represents the first thematic assessment report in UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook series. The special focus of this report, in the context of IYDD, will help to raise global public awareness of the state and development potential of the world’s deserts. The report draws on various studies and assessments of dryland ecosystems that have yielded valuable new insights into the issues of deserts and desertification, although significant gaps in terms of data and methodologies remain.

The Global Deserts Outlook provides a balanced picture of deserts. It shows that they are more than landscapes which are the end result of the process of desertification. The report urges policy-makers to consider the development potential of deserts, and their conservation needs: what are the most appropriate and sustainable livelihoods for people living in desert areas? Although deserts do not have much water, they do have other valuable natural resources that benefit people, such as biological and cultural diversity, and minerals. They also have the potential to attract tourists and generate solar power. The scientific knowledge and engineering skills needed to generate sustainable incomes from desert resources already exist; appropriate actions and equitable sharing of the proceeds need to be determined.

The Global Deserts Outlook is a stimulating and informative resource for all those concerned with deserts and desertification, and the sustainable development of dryland environments.

Shafqat Kakakhel
United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director
United Nations Environment Programme

© UNEP 2006