Cheikh Mbow

Debriding Adaptation Action in Drylands Africa


Climate change affects faster and deeper the drylands in Africa than other systems with severe vulnerabilities to people and ecosystems. In addition to the impacts of climate change, the drylands are highly disrupted by conflicts of various kinds, some of which related to land resource competitions. However, African drylands possess a lot of remarkable resources and opportunities that are poorly tapped. Resilience, under these conditions, will necessitate stronger deliberate processes that lead to unleashing these potentials to sustain a rapidly growing population under severe climate impacts. Among the outcomes that lead to optimizing resources opportunities, are the knowledge and action to support both traditional and innovative options for current and future livelihoods. While the African drylands face many of the same climate challenges as other parts of Africa, there are typical features of drylands that suggest specific approaches (processes) to building their adaptive capacity and resilience (knowledge). These include tailored empowerment for locally-led adaptation (policy) that take into account the resources available (assets and outcome), the best practices and asset endowment such as rural infrastructures, promotion of neglected natural resources; and reduction of human capital outflows from these to create jobs for youth and women in the face of climate change.


Nearly a third of global drylands occur in Africa, where they cover around 19.6m km2. These two-thirds of Africa’s land area are home to the most vulnerable communities, ecosystems and livelihoods (GCA, 2021, Chapter “Dryland”). Biophysically, the drylands are diverse and refer to ecosystems such as the Sahel, the miombos and other open vegetation types, some Mediterranean ecosystems and desert lands. This diversity leads to various agricultural, pastoral and sylvopastoral livelihoods (Mbow, 2015). Africa’s drylands are generally perceived as marginal lands with a strong negative rhetoric because of recurrent droughts, famine and desperation (Stavi et al., 2021).

The disconnection of drylands limits their inclusion to core governance and due care mechanisms leading to high exposure to conflicts that exacerbate the vulnerability and the fragility of current local livelihood (GCA, 2021). After decades of rainfall decline, poverty, food insecurity and undernourishment are on the rise with more than one-third (282 million) undernourished people living in Africa, according to FAO (2021). The impacts of climate change include reduced water availability, increased occurrence of vector and water-borne diseases and damage to transportation infrastructure and buildings (Spear, 2015).

These known challenges hide the other dimension of drylands that are home to exceptional natural resources such as water, energy, land for food production, natural products of high nutritional value etc. (Mbow, 2020). The African Union and UNCCD support the opportunity to craft a new African narrative away from the image of desperation to an image of hope that embraces and is inspired by the multiplicity of natural resources available and accessible to shape a vibrant development pathway that drives its own resilience.

In this paper we intend to deconstruct the common conviction that there is little that can be done in the drylands of Africa. In the analysis we offer process-based outcomes for local adaptation that are supported by a number of recommendations on how adaptation can be achieved using local opportunities.

Unshackling local barriers for the adaptation of Africa’s drylands

A common feature of the recent programs on resilience is that they are ill-framed because of fuzzy interventions and priorities targets to favor improved lives and livelihood of vulnerable people. Recent developments with new global support to adaptation through the GEF (Global Environment Facility), GCF (Green Climate Fund) and AF (Adaptation Fund) show that adaptation is intrinsically a local issue and therefore requires locally-led processes and interventions to improve resilience. Local interventions include encompassing actions such as support for land restoration, water resources management, sustainable energy systems, health, organizational aspects and transparent governance for inclusive growth. Most of these local solutions are not difficult to implement, do not involve expensive modern machinery, and strongly depend on local knowledge (Mbow et al., 2021) (Figure 1).

Why then do we struggle to have massive impact of these interventions on adaptation? A major challenge in resilience is the lack of articulation between various levels of government and community-level responses. This entails limited coordination of local organizations with central agencies that leads to a limited use of human capital to help connect and harmonize multiple initiatives. Examples from regional initiatives such the Great Green Wall, NAP (National Adaptation Plans), and NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) processes indicate the dominance of top-down approaches rather than bottom-up action by local stakeholders. Participatory and deliberative engagement of local decision-makers, and multi-institutional partnerships are necessary to optimize capacity mobilization through participatory approaches (Mapfumo et al., 2017). Local and inclusive adaptation pathways are bound to the imperative of addressing local barriers to adaptation such as land rights, transparent governance and benefit-sharing mechanisms, proper social inclusion, and empowerment of women and youth.

Figure 1: Smallholders farmers’ multiple challenges (Mbow, 2019)

It is important to address local barriers through the enablers that help lift them. One set of barriers is structural, for drylands are often dependent on uncertain rainfall. Rainfall variability (through irrigation and improved water management) results in low productivity of land, but through agroforestry and sustainable farming practices, improved yield can be attained (Mbow et al., 2020). The other barrier to address is the one related to rural infrastructures and support to market connection, in order to accelerate the transformation and use of local products. Many enablers are there to create transformation towards higher production and improved livelihoods, that leads to safety net and social protection. These are: 1) the support of local social dynamics (distant voices, promotion and use of local knowledge); 2) addressing (armed) conflicts, prevention and resolution (multi-level governance, empowering local stakeholders within broader positive vision, ensuring local benefit from large projects) and; 3) development of new financial mechanisms to bring investments directly to local level. None of these can be achieved without building a new rhetoric that deconstructs old perceptions of drylands.

Changing rhetoric on dryland resilience

For a long time, drylands were pictured through a general perception of endemic low fertility, recurrent droughts resulting in desperate poverty and vulnerability and, ultimately, in hopeless social-ecological systems. In particular, when policies and interventions are driven by mental models arising from a pessimistic mindset, less positive actions can be promoted. We suggest here an evolving recognition towards a constructive rhetoric that opens the door to a radically more positive narrative about the African drylands.

African drylands are well-endowed with resources, biodiversity and space, sustained by secular cultures and practices. Dryland ecosystem services in Africa are among the most reliable sources of living but they face several impediments such as competition for land, climate change, poor governance and conflict, among others. But these should not inhibit a vision for the possibility to encourage a deep and rapid transformation at scale to inform realistic programs which have the potential to trigger a virtuous cycle that can stabilize and improve the security, wellbeing and prosperity of dryland inhabitants (Mbow, 2020).

Land restoration policies are not new in drylands. But, for many years, land restoration has been driven top-down, with government technical services playing an end-to-end role in tree plantation, soil restoration, water harvesting, etc. These centralized policy approaches have failed to deliver community expectations (Mbow, 2017), as almost 50 years of centralized approaches to massive tree plantations have proven ineffective (Ribot et al., 2002; Diouf et al., 2002), and have undermined local equity and stewardship outcomes in places where local people have sustained the resources for centuries. However, many African drylands have moved a long way towards adopting decentralization and devolution of environmental actions to local communities since the 1990s. In this move, land restoration by communities has mostly proven to be effective and sustainable despite the scarcity of financial resources and equipment. Communities develop (or re-instate) restoration practices that are context specific to soil, biodiversity or productivity related issues. These responses are often more appropriate to the local system (whether for ecological or social and economic reasons) than imported solutions that often fail by not being adapted to local conditions (Duponnois et al. (Eds), 2011). When seen through local eyes, restoration can look quite different from the perspective of international development (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Process-based outcomes for adaptation in drylands Africa (Source: The authors)

Several interventions to build resilience have been tested with success in the Sahel and they all require clarity about what process to put in place to achieve them. A collection of winning interventions is listed below:

  1. Improving soil structure and water retention to improve crop productivity (sectors)
  2. Trees planted to buffer climate extremes and protect soil against soil erosion, reduce run-off and support biological pumping of water and fertilizers (assets)
  3. Land reclamation through mechanical approaches has given excellent results in the Sahel and includes: zai, stones lines/stripes, half-moons, small dams, slow infiltration to combat salinization etc. Salted land reclamation, soil acidity control, manure as local fertilizers, crop by-products for soil fertilization (assets and motivation)
  4. Water harvesting and management of small water bodies, micro-dams and small irrigation, underground dams, small rivers dykes (asset)
  5. Managing multifunctional landscape, agrobiodiversity, diversification and agroforestry (assets, motivation)
  6. Herd mobility and shifting agriculture, managing pastoral corridors and managing conflicts, fodder banks and management of fires to improve pastures, small waters bodies management (assets, motivation and policies)
  7. Nature-based solution for erosion control, sand encroachment, protection of farming land including green fencing (policies, external)
  8. Crop variety selection, germplasm support, domestication, agrobiodiversity, biomass management (sectors, assets)
  9. Trade, high value products transformation, new market opportunities, entrepreneurship for youth and women (sector, asset, motivation and external)
  10. Organizational, institutional readiness dimensions of adaptation sustain all of the above to support local empowerment of vulnerable communities (policies).

Where to start? The “Big Levies” for adaptation

Water resources

Africa’s drylands do not generally lack water, but do lack the investments in sustainable water use to support agriculture, human consumption and land restoration with appropriate access and equity. There are multiple large transboundary regional watersheds in the drylands, including the Niger, Senegal, Gambia, Nile, and Limpopo rivers, as well as the Lake Chad network, and the Orange River; groundwater is also extensive (Figure 2), albeit at times deep. For example, currently 11 billion m3 y‑1 of renewable water resources are withdrawn in West Africa (excluding Cameroon and Chad) from 1,300 billion m3 available, less than 1%; of this, agriculture uses 75%, domestic consumption 17%, and industry 7% (GWP-WATAC, 2000). Dams are often used to reduce variability and generate hydro power, though such centralized infrastructure often accounts poorly for impacts on local communities and smallholder farmers. If governed well, these resources offer major opportunities. A fully adaptative response relies also on small water bodies management for local uses to support small gardening efforts, particularly during the dry season. An ambitious program is also needed to access the deep water table that shows exceptional potential across the Sahel (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Groundwater in Africa (from Cherlet et al., 2018, p. 92).

Neglected and underutilized plant species

Modern agricultural systems are based on very few crop species and have neglected many indigenous crops, despite growing evidence of their potential to improve food and nutrition security, particularly for resource-poor households in Africa (Baldermann et al., 2016, Chivenge et al., 2015). Many other underutilized crops are cultivated, traded, and consumed locally, and are adaptable to poor soils, severe climates, and low-input agricultural systems (Mbow et al., 2020). Food based on some of these, like cassava bread in West Africa (Pereira, 2017), teff in Ethiopian cuisine (Cheng et al 2017), and many fruits are being sold both into African and often international markets.

On the agricultural side, adaptation of dryland farming to cope with warming, possibly dryer and more variable climates will include changing cropping systems and patterns, switching from cereal-based systems to cereal-legumes, and diversifying production systems for higher value and greater water use efficiency (Thomas, 2008). These shifts cannot be achieved without paying more attention to neglected plants, mainstreaming them into national programs and policies and re-vitalizing their use in local food systems, with benefits to food and nutritional security, as well as biodiversity and local economies in drylands. Research is needed in agronomy, breeding, post-harvest handling and value addition, and linking farmers to markets (Sinclair et al., (2019); Chivenge et al., 2015) as well as guidelines to assist countries in making the best use of biodiversity for food and agriculture in their nutrition programs (FAO, 2016). Policies must also consider a more equal distribution of land to enable scaling up of neglected plants (Lipton and Saghai, 2017).

Under-rated services

African drylands offer a variety of services that have been poorly leveraged for livelihoods in the past, but offer significant opportunities in the future. In many cases these opportunities have been under-rated and underutilized. This feature raises dryland-specific challenges of monitoring, aggregating and assuring important benefits. Three examples, among many, are:

  • Nature-based solutions: nature, as biodiversity or ecosystem functions, can support many services essential to adaptation in drylands, including recycling nutrients, pollination, protecting shorelines, formation of soils, reducing heat extremes, and cycling of water and nutrients. Through these effects, nature-based solutions can contribute to food security, human health, building materials, water security and energy supply. A focus on nature-based solutions can achieve multiple benefits that are particularly important in drylands where climate change and desertification are projected to cause reductions in crop and livestock productivity (UNEP, 2021, p.113).
  • Biodiversity: whilst the significant biodiversity of drylands clearly contributes towards nature-based solutions, biodiversity is also recognized for its more general values; whether through tourism, or targeted financial mechanisms for biodiversity conservation, the evolving concept of biodiversity can be designed to support livelihoods at the same time (Porras and Steele, 2020).
  • Solar energy and green energy: High levels of energy imports in Africa widely are a huge opportunity for solar especially in drylands, albeit tempered by transmission distances. But there is also local potential for irrigation, dryland towns, and possible surpluses for value-adding ore processing where appropriate.
  • Carbon sequestration: the vast areas of drylands play a significant role in the global carbon cycle, partly due to the previously-unrecognized levels of tree cover (Brandt et al., 2020), and shown by their effect on inter-annual variability in CO2 uptake (Ahlström et al., 2015; Mbow et al., 2020). ‘Greening’ Africa’s drylands as a result of land restoration, for example through the AFR100 process (, has a substantial co-benefit in carbon sequestration, justifying improved monitoring of biomass of trees outside forests (Skole et al., 2021).

Where to act now? Conclusion

This paper shows that process matters as much as the type of intervention used for adaptation. A set of interlinked processes for resilience can be summarized into a small set of major directions for adaptation programs to support as an integrated intervention in Africa’s drylands:

  • New business opportunities through trade between Sahel’s countries if we drastically improve transparency standards, transport systems, conservation of goods, and abate child labor, and gender and equity issues; establish new business models for inclusive economies and align them to consumer power, particularly in growing urban centers, to drive sustainable value chains; create Green Enterprises (social enterprises) who become employers; link land resources with tourism, handicrafts, and services.
  • High-level political commitment to land restoration and tenure security for local benefits: Climate-proofed economic growth model. Mostly policies are on production not responsive to CC. This includes the importance of multi-institutional and multi-level partnerships.
  • Stronger coordination of local initiatives; e.g., optimizing the use of fertile lands such as around small freshwater bodies, wetlands, and riparian ecosystems along rivers that can sustain sustainable intensification production systems. Large areas of land are seen as productive but require combined effort for clean energy and water that exist underground to boost production and transformation.
  • New financial mechanisms tied to local ownership and decision making. Funding local adaptation action through new mechanisms of direct access of resources by local communities.
  • Promotion and scaling up the enhanced direct access modality introduced by financial mechanisms such as AF or GCF. This allows local communities to build their capacity to develop adaptation programs and implement adaptation actions
  • Social inclusion to incorporate the needs and perspectives of the most marginalized users, including indigenous people, women, youth and pastoralists.


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