Disentangling effects of climate and land-use change on West African drylands' forage supply


Livestock rearing is the most important agricultural activity in global drylands, making forage supply an essential ecosystem service (ES). Most drylands are expected to experience increasing levels of climatic aridity and land-use pressure in the future. As few studies account for combined effects of these global change drivers, we still have a limited understanding of how these drivers jointly shape forage supply. Here, the concept of social-ecological systems (SESs) is useful, as it helps to formalize the complex interrelationships of drivers. Taking advantage of steep gradients of climatic aridity and land-use pressure in West Africa, a crossed space-for-time substitution was applied to capture combined effects of climate and land-use change on forage supply. We have operationalized the SES concept via structural equation modelling, and analysed how drivers directly or indirectly affected forage quantity, quality and their integrated proxy (metabolisable energy yield). Results demonstrate that contemporary dryland SESs are mainly controlled by land-use, which has often been used as a proxy for other variables, such as climatic aridity. Aridity was also directly linked to a higher risk of vegetation degradation, indicating that future drylands will be less resilient to grazing pressures. The importance of land-use drivers for ES provision implies that sustainable grazing management could potentially mitigate detrimental climate change effects. However, model effects mediated by intermediate variables, such as aridity, short-term vegetation dynamics, and weather fluctuations, make it extremely difficult to predict climate change effects on ESs. Integrating structural equation modelling into the well-defined SES concept is thus highly useful to disentangle complex interdependencies of global change drivers in dryland rangelands, and to analyze drivers’ direct and indirect effects on ESs. Our novel approach can thus foster a deeper understanding of patterns and mechanisms driving ecosystem service supply in drylands, which is essential for establishing sustainable management under conditions of global change.

Glob. Environ. Change