A Bold Vision for the Dry Areas


Aly Abousabaa

Director General of ICARDA

This summer, the Sahara Desert community of Ouargla in Algeria set a record for the hottest temperature in Africa (51°C). In the non-tropical dry areas where ICARDA works, we are becoming accustomed to record high temperatures and increasing water scarcity. Insufficient rainfall, climate variability and change, land degradation, desertification, recurring droughts, and temperature extremes, all pose serious threats to the dry areas.

The dry areas cover over 40% of the world’s land surface and has a growing population of more than 2.5 billion people. They grow more than 40% of the world’s food and keep half of the world’s livestock, yet one in six live in chronic poverty. High population growth and widespread unemployment put social stability at risk. The dry areas are also home to many fragile and post-conflict states that rely on agrarian economies.

The Middle East and North Africa region of the dry areas is the world’s largest net food importer. Experts project that there will be increasing dependence on cereal food imports, greater vulnerability to high global food prices, and market shocks. Studies have shown that food insecurity is a key driver of conflicts. It is crucial to tackle food insecurity, undernutrition, and overweight and obesity to build resilience to conflicts. Additionally, the current agricultural practices in MENA are leading to unsustainable use of natural resources.

This reality requires innovative solutions to strengthen the resilience of rural communities in the dry areas. ICARDA’s new Strategic Plan 2017-2026 is harnessing cutting-edge scientific research to address the challenges smallholder farmers face in the dry areas.

The strategy is the result of an extensive consultation process with key stakeholders, including national agricultural research systems, CGIAR Centers, and donors. It offers practical solutions to enhance food and nutritional security, reverse resource degradation, and strengthen resilience and climate change adaptation. Our work complements the development priorities of the countries where we work, as well as the wider Sustainable Development Goals Agenda for 2030.

Last year was the strategy’s first year of operation. At ICARDA, we aligned our research activities to five strategic priorities and four cross-cutting research themes. Our work, demand-driven and building on 40 years of experience, have borne promising results: higher and more stable production, sustainable natural resource management, increased incomes, and food and nutritional security.

Specifically, there was the development and dissemination of heat-tolerant durum wheat varieties that are now thriving in land left fallow by rice farmers in the Senegal River Basin; new approaches to water harvesting in Jordan that combine indigenous knowledge and mechanization to enhance effectiveness; an initiative in Tunisia that is improving our knowledge of effective technology transfer strategies; and efforts to raise the productive capacity of women in Afghanistan.

In India, we continued to work with partners to address challenges the country’s smallholder farmers face. We released new, less toxic varieties of grasspea and pulse varieties that are rich in iron and zinc – helping to strengthen the food and nutritional security of the rural poor who often suffer from nutrition and iron deficiencies that can lead to anemia and growth impairment.

We enhanced the safety and long-term preservation of our unique genetic resources, depositing seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Located near the North Pole in Norway, the vault holds more than 880,000 samples from 73 genebanks around the world. To date, ICARDA deposited over 31,000 seed samples of wheat, barley, faba bean, chickpea, and grasspea in the vault. Alongside the Crop Trust and CGIAR partners, we contributed to a new global genebank infrastructure that protects the food and nutritional security of future generations.

Capacity development is a core priority for ICARDA. We continued to work with individual researchers, institutions, and national agricultural research systems to improve the sustainable productivity of agricultural systems through crop improvement, water and land management, integrated crop-livestock-rangeland management, and climate change adaptation. We launched a new e-learning platform, leveraging modern technologies to enhance professional development.

We participated in discussions at the 13th session of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, presenting practical solutions and strategies to reverse land degradation across dry areas. Held in September in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China, the forum brought together experts and decision-makers from 196 countries to plan coordinated responses to emerging trends such as forced migration, and to agree on the actions needed to strengthen the resilience of drought-vulnerable communities.

ICARDA organized a side event with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on land resources planning, which introduced several new tools that countries can adopt to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality. We also contributed to an event organized by the African Initiative for Combating Desertification, a multi-partner initiative designed to reverse desertification and strengthen resilience to climate change in the Sahel and Horn of Africa.

We will be involved in a new four-year project called “Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Water Efficiency/Productivity and Water Sustainability in NENA Countries”. Led by FAO and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the project aims to streamline the use of affordable water-saving technologies in the Near East and North Africa. ICARDA will contribute to the development and dissemination of new technologies to help tackle the region’s chronic water scarcity.

Finally, as an effort to strengthen our commitment to the Mediterranean region and Africa, we opened a second office in Cairo in 2017. This has already helped enhance partnerships and improve the delivery of new technologies and sustainable solutions to the country’s resource-poor farmers. The Cairo-based research team serves ICARDA’s global programs and Nile Valley and Red Sea Regional Program – strategically aligning research activities with Sudan, Eritrea, and Yemen, and a new thematic research platform for sustainable intensification in irrigated systems.

Innovation, adaptation, and resilience are critical to the viability of productive agriculture in dry areas. The bold and ambitious ideas driving our new strategic direction reflect this. We look forward to learning from experience, anticipating challenges, and delivering the tools that farmers and rural communities need to thrive.