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Viable Options Exist For Sustainable Desert Development

Improved resource management for desert ecosystems. The extreme variability of desert ecosystems tends toward boom-and-bust cycles rather than a steady flow of environmental goods and services. Deserts, therefore, require policies that support dynamic responses to the variable and unpredictable desert environment. Mitigating the “bust” part of the cycle is an important component of the sustainable management of desert ecosystems, including not only emergency support during drought crises, but also proactive management to increase human and societal resilience, by creating diversified rural income opportunities that can sustain rural livelihoods during times of stress.

Making use of modern technology. Traditional wisdom on coping with drought, complemented by cutting-edge science and information technology holds great potential for sustainable desert resource management. Technical knowledge and reliable forecasts alone are insufficient, but need to be implemented to the benefit of the local people. Climate change adaptation planning must therefore include the identification of vulnerable population groups and the exploration of effective and affordable livelihood strategies during times of climatic stress. Perhaps most importantly, management systems are needed that have the will and capacity to act on the most likely risk scenarios.

Renewable energy from the desert. Continuously high solar radiation makes deserts ideal locations for solar cell installations, the potential reach of which is not limited to deserts. Apart from technological feasibility, the adoption of solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels depends on the global as well as national policy environments and concrete implementation strategies. Possible incentives to encourage the shift towards renewable energy sources include taxes on pollution-generating burning of fossil fuels, while providing loans and grants for the use of solar and other renewable energy resources.

“Soft path” for water development. Deserts, as the first environments confronted with water shortages and forced to rethink water use priorities, should be among the forerunners in developing and testing innovative, efficient, and globally-relevant, water-use technologies and policies. The “soft path” approach to water should focuses on water-use efficiency and on lowering demand, supported by economic and institutional instruments, rather than on further attempts to increase water supply. In many desert regions, water prices currently do not reflect the true cost and value of water.

A strategy to discourage wasteful water consumption, which at the same time contributes to more equitable access to water, is to support low-income and low-volume users with transparent subsidies, financed by excessive water consumers. Raising public awareness about the need to conserve water is particularly important for new migrants into deserts who have not developed a “sense of place”, such as those moving into the desert cities of the U.S. Southwest.

Small-scale decentralized water supply facilities and the involvement of communities in the decision-making process about water management, allocation, and use ensure more equitable access to water and potentially lower environmental impacts than the massive centrally-planned water schemes of the 20th century. Promotion of high value-added uses of water is critical to improve water-use efficiency. For example, the high-tech industrial sector enhances the value of each cubic metre of water used many times more than the agricultural sector. Within the agricultural sector, one possibility to improve water efficiency is to restrict irrigated agriculture in deserts to high-value crops (for example, dates), intensive greenhouse farming or aquaculture, while lower-value crops such as maize can be imported from more humid regions.
© UNEP 2006