Bringing together the multidisciplinary scientific community addressing desertification issues: The European DesertNet Initiative (EDN).

Prof. Dr. Carlos San Juan Mesonada (Department of Economics, University Carlos III of Madrid, Spain); Dr. Mariam Akhtar-Schuster (University of Hamburg, Germany); Dr. Begni, G. (Cnes).


Desertification is a severe degradation of land induced by complex coupling between economic agents activity and natural factors in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid regions. Presently, 39,2 % (about 5.2 billion hectares) of the world are under threat, which bring vulnerable local people to extreme poverty situations. It may lead to massive human displacement which can not only generate economic problems to other regions but also frequently generate national and international tensions. Some 900 million people are estimated to be under threat - a figure that could rise to over 2 billion people by around 2050. This unacceptable situation has brought a wide international solidarity move. The most visible event is the UNCCD declaration (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification), which was adopted in Paris on June 17, 1994 and entered into force on December 26, 1996. . European DesertNet (EDN) can be seen as a 'bottom-up' concerted contribution of European scientists to a wide international effort. Due to immense worldwide interest of the scientific community, European DesertNet since December 2006 allows membership of non-European scientists, specifically inviting scientists from affected countries to join it - which makes it of specific interest for ISPRS. The EDN aims at identifying cutting-edge science and transferring scientific knowledge generated in the research projects of the EDN members to end user organizations as well as providing mechanisms to evaluate the on going policies to combat desertification from the economic and scientific point of view.
The main origin of desertification is an overexploitation of scarce natural resources beyond their recovery point, often deepened by such natural conditions as climate fluctuations at various time and space conditions scales. Frequently, the origins of the process are the lack of internalization of the negative externalities of several economic activities developed in the fragile ecosystems area. Combating desertification requires a scientific inter-disciplinary approach to understand the origins of the phenomena and best anticipate the impacts of mitigation or remediation measures - including identification and protection of endangered areas. For these reasons, the present research programmes tend to increase the integration of data and processes about soil, plant and water degradation (derived from remote sensing an in situ observations) to various social and economic factors.

Underlying strategies include such various and interacting themes as water efficient management, introduction of species resistant to dryness conditions, better management of land productivity, stopping irrigated lands losses, demography, local micro-economic measures. They imply both a long-term situation global monitoring and a specific focus on endangered areas or zones under mitigation and remediation measures. Taking a joint advantage of remote sensing multi-scale time series of remotely sensed products with in situ various data collected according to strict protocols is expected to bring a unique tool to answer this dramatic challenge.


International organizations have been politically endorsed worldwide. Their deep willingness and commitment to lead their mission to the benefit of the most vulnerable populations is by no ways questionable, but efficiently harmonizing this 'top-down' approach with an actual participation of the civil society such as local population, local managers, NGO's, scientists, servicing structures, private sector, etc, remains challenging. Nevertheless, joining the 'bottom' and the 'top' is mandatory to get efficient and sustainable achievements. Actually, many 'bottom-up' initiatives are flourishing and are needed to build success stories. Most often, they tend to build up dedicated intermediate structures that can efficiently build up a common language for a better interaction between the 'bottom' and the 'top'. EDN can be perceived as one of them. Desertification is not just a theoretical scientific approach but also an applied know-how to design policies. Most scientists involved in desertification research are in close contact with interactions between hard environmental conditions and people who are fighting to survive. The human sense of solidarity and the scientific understanding of the needs of multidisciplinary research at an ambitious level can explain why scientists decided to join their efforts through the EDN structure and its associated worldwide network. They want to work hands in hands with 'sister associations' such as ISPRS. EDN is also willing to contact economic agents that work in mitigation and remediation projects or are affected by desertification consequences of the desertification process like insurance companies, infrastructure operators, farmer organizations, companies producing mitigations devices, and public administration at local and regional level in the affected areas.


The beginning of the story is a German initiative, when national researchers about desertification issues decided to join their efforts through a dedicated scientific network - 'Desert*Net Germany' .

During the CRIC-3 meeting of the UNCCD (May 2 to 11, 2005, Bonn, Germany), Desert*Net Germany representatives informally met with scientists from the CSFD (France) and the BELSPO (Belgium). They decided to enlarge the German initiative to the European scale. A Declaration summarized hereunder was compiled and opened for signature. This Declaration and registration facilities can be found on the official EDN Website at

The foundational meeting of EDN took place on October 16 and 17 2006 in Bonn, Germany, within the premises of UN which host the UNCCD Secretariat. The aims and structure of the network were formulated. 38 scientists from 8 countries, UNCCD/CST, the European Commission (DG Research and DG Joint Research Centres), UNESCO/MAB and representatives of European ministries were present.

The first working meeting of European DesertNet took place in January 2007 in Brussels, Belgium. The worldwide vocation of EDN was firmly stated. Working topics and five working groups were defined. Representatives of 'Oasis', a global agricultural research-for-development partnership against desertification project, joined the "users group". Also, 'Drynet', an EU co-financed international initiative against drylands degradation and poverty of 14 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all over the world: Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, joined the "users group". So, EDN went online. The network went on growing and significantly spreading outside the EU. On July 16, 2007, the network included 220 members from 36 countries. Since mid July 2007, discussions are underway with relevant networks in China. Scientists and representatives of scientific networks in China have signalled much interest in joining European DesertNet. A joint Memorandum of Understanding between Chinese and European DesertNet will be formulated.

The major objectives of EDN are:

  • To identify and analyse the pressing problems with regard to drought, land degradation/desertification and poverty;

  • To review the state of the art of European scientific knowledge and know-how concerning this global problem;

  • To identify, through networking, success stories and best practices resulting from scientific research, and to create multipliers and accelerators for their implementation;

  • To identify gaps and develop innovative basic research in these areas;

  • To develop applied research in view of its use in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, thereby focusing on users' needs, interdisciplinarity and integration;

  • To strengthen and support European research capacities in order to promote scientific cooperation;

  • To structure and facilitate the communication and transfer of know-how and technologies within the European DesertNet and towards affected countries;

  • To establish and intensify linkages with research partners inside and outside Europe;

  • To stimulate application of appropriate research findings in the drylands through participatory processes, involving civil society, NGOs and CBOs;

  • To establish a mechanism for effective and successful policy advice and for public awareness rising.

As a network, EDN

  • provides a platform for scientific discussions and exchange of ideas, foster cutting edge science, identify topics and research areas,

  • identifies and documents scientific state of the art of the main topics in desertification assessment, risk evaluation, mitigation and restoration,

  • identifies and articulates the economic drivers and the socio-economic consequences of desertification,

  • integrates scientific findings across disciplines, translate into common language and communicate scientific findings, and

  • works in and on affected areas inside and outside Europe.

As a think tank, EDN communicates with stakeholders and policy-makers. EDN

  • identifies minimum consensus on consolidated knowledge,

  • evaluates scientific knowledge for stakeholders and policy makers,

  • disseminates knowledge,

  • responds to demands for assessment and information needs address knowledge gaps,

  • translates knowledge to improve governance,

  • and identifies issues and priorities for stakeholders and public policies.

For this purpose, EDN - basically a European initiative - is open to all scientists within and outside Europe wanting to join it and collaborate with it. EDN supports the UN environmental conventions, in particular the UNCCD. It intends to strengthen the cooperation with its scientific body, the Committee on Science and Technology (CST) and is open to collaborate with all other UNCCD panels or groups, in need of scientific input. EDN is also looking forward to collaboration with international organisations, programmes and agencies in need of scientific information or advice. EDN is firmly based on the idea of creating a global network of scientists who are interested in the topic and who share the vision and the objectives delineated in the Declaration of the European DesertNet. So, it is open to all scientists in the world. EDN is prepared to put its knowledge its understanding to the service of combating desertification and creating sustainable livelihoods in drylands through sound scientific work.


EDN is led and coordinated by a Chair: Prof. Dr. Carlos San Juan Mesonada, University Carlos III of Madrid, Spain) and a Co-Chair & Secretary (office leader): Dr. Mariam Akhtar-Schuster (University of Hamburg, Germany).

The operational managing structure is the 'Steering Committee', supported by an 'Advisory Board' which, among others, is the contact point for the various research communities, leads a survey paving the way to innovative approaches and programmes.

The 'Users Group' is an EDN key structure. It can be written that, without efficient contact with local population, decision-makers, NGOs, EDN cannot achieve its ultimate goals. As mentioned above, the Oasis project and the DRYNET NGOs network are the first members of the 'Users Group', which should expand further on.

In order to lead and structure the practical day-to-day work and structure it, five strongly interacting 'Working Groups' (WG) have been set up:

  • The 'Science-Policy Interface' WG (chaired par Dr. Gérard Begni), is in charge of addressing needs and demands articulated by policy makers

  • The 'Drylands Observation System' WG is in charge of taking into account the space observation systems and the multidisciplinary in situ measurement network in order to set up integrated sustainable observation systems that meet the needs of scientists and of all those who take advantage of the information that they can elaborate from them, either for early warning system, prevention or mitigation measures and efficiency evaluation. This WG is certainly the main interface between EARSeL and EDN

  • The 'Economic Drivers and Social-Economic Consequences' WG is in charge of taking into account these issues which are quite important for integrated approaches and stakeholders dialogue among others.

  • The 'Internal Structures' WG group is eliciting funding mechanisms of the network, and is organising the preparation of key events

  • The 'Training and Capacity Building' (chaired by Pr. Dr. Stefano Grego) is also a key structure to improve and strengthen the "downstream" dialogue and sustainable action definition and proper leading. Underestimating the training and capacity building needs and failing to properly target the related activities would be a major mistake in EDN work plan.


The EDN started working as soon as its objectives and structures were endorsed and consolidated.

A questionnaire about immediate expectations from EDN was developed and carried out. The most important issue is the necessity and the possibility of setting up working groups, not only in the figure itself but also in the low deviation of the opinions. The second issue in importance is the spreading of information (communication with the general public is considered essential). The figure presented hereunder is the best illustration of these results:


Fig. 1 - Results of the EDN immediate expectations questionnaire.

The 'Science-Policy Interface' WG has received an official ministerial official request to comment the 10-Year Strategic Plan and Framework to Enhance the Implementation of the UNCCD (2008-2018), and is currently also commenting on the GoE document on 'Communication and information Strategy'. Moreover, this WG is organizing a side event during the UNCCD COP-8 in Madrid, Spain: 'Desertification: science, policy making and the chain of users. Is there a straightforward path from science to end-users? Where are the turning points and crossroads?' (Sept. 4, 2007). This evidences a firm and trusty link between EDN and formal structures linked to the UNCCD.

The 'Drylands Observation System' WG is preparing a scientific lecture session and an internal working meeting which will take place on 6th and 7th September 2007 respectively in the framework of the Botanical Congress (September 3rd - 7th 2007) at Hamburg University, Germany.

So, while looking at the best way to answer the network expectations, EDN started working on both the political and scientific fronts.


ISPRS is a 'non-governmental international organization, devoted to the development of international cooperation for the advancement of knowledge, research, development, education and training in the photogrammetry, remote sensing and spatial information sciences, their integration and applications, to contribute to the well-being of humanity and the sustainability of the environment' (Statute I.) It can be considered as a 'vertical' structure It brings together among others scientists, service providers, industry in the related fields. It includes eight Technical Commissions. Among others, Commission IV is about 'Geodatabases and digital mapping', Commission VI is about 'Education and Outreach', Commission VII is about 'Thematic processing, modelling and analysis of remotely Sensed data', Commission VIII (newly created in the period 2000-2004) is about 'Remote Sensing applications and policies'.
EDN is an 'horizontal' scientific structure dedicated to better focus research about desertification and links with relevant stakeholders, favouring the implementation of efficient policies, projects and actions. It started from Europe, but has a worldwide action field. It includes such Working Groups as 'Science-Policy Interface ', 'Dryland Observation Systems', 'Training and Capacity Building'. In particular, Remote sensing techniques are a key tool for the 'Dryland Observation Systems' WG.
Photogrammetrists do know that the vocation of 'horizontal' and 'vertical' structures is not to follow parallel paths. Crossroads can be identified from the above short comments - and last but not least from the common willingness of both structures to 'contribute to the well-being of humanity and the sustainability of the environment'.

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