Arid Lands Newsletter (link)No. 52, November/December 2002
Special issue: Selected papers from the IALC Conference:
Assessing Capabilities of Soil and Water Resources in Drylands:
The Role of Information Retrieval and Dissemination Technologies


Editor's note:
Collaboration as a tool for improving quality and availability of drylands data

by Katherine Waser


The importance of reliable, complete, and accessible information to achieving sustainable development and its components was formally recognized in 1992 in the text of Agenda 21, the action program adopted by more than 178 governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio Convention. As stated in Chapter 40 of Agenda 21, "Information for decision-making," section 40.1,

In sustainable development, everyone is a user and provider of information considered in the broadest sense. That includes data, information, appropriately packaged experience and knowledge. The need for information arises at all levels, from that of senior decision makers at the national and international levels to the grass-roots and individual levels. (UN Division for Sustainable Development 2002)

Similarly, the Global Environment Outlook 3 report, sponsored in 2002 by UNEP and numerous other international agencies, states:

Information is the foundation of sustainable development and is fundamental to successful planning and decision making. If decisions are made without sound data and information, they will be little better than best guesses and are likely to be wrong. (...) High quality, comprehensive and timely information on the environment remains a scarce resource (...) Environmental data acquisition remains a basic need in all countries. (UNEP 2002, p. 404)

and further acknowledges that

The information revolution holds the possibility of providing cheap and reliable information in appropriate forms to all stakeholders in the environment--decision makers, local communities, and the general public--thus enabling them to participate more meaningfully in decisions and actions that determine the courses of their daily lives and of those of succeeding generations. (UNEP 2002, p. xxix)

In drylands environments, water and soil data are particularly crucial. Provision of water and soil-related information involves both the scientists who design the tools and the monitoring regimes that effect initial data collection, and the information specialists who design the tools for organizing, categorizing, providing access to, and disseminating this information to the world at large.

Yet, in general, until now, these two groups have not had many fruitful opportunities to interact with each other, better understand each others' processes and constraints, or collaborate together to develop even more effective and appropriate tools for data collection and dissemination.

In late 2002, such an opportunity was afforded a varied group of participants by the International Arid Lands Consortium through its conference and workshop, Assessing capabilities of soil and water resources in drylands: The role of information retrieval and dissemination technologies, held in Tucson, Arizona, 20-25 October 2002. The stated purpose for participants in this conference and meeting was to "work together to develop their potential to benefit arid lands people through training and the application of technologies appropriate to specific regions." The first two days of the week were taken up with the conference. On the Monday, an overview of drylands characteristics and issues was presented, followed by a group of papers focusing on "Collecting and organizing soil and water data: Tools and strategies." On the Tuesday, the conference focus shifted to "Electronic access to soil and water information: Demonstrations of interactivity and usability." After a day-long break for field trips, Thursday and Friday's workshop focused on "Information gateways, portals and learning tools: Demonstrating the future."

Clearly, a major focus of the entire week was using advanced information technologies to provide timely and cost-effective access to information. In that spirit, the conference organizers decided to use electronic means, rather than traditional publishing venues, to disseminate and provide access to the proceedings of this conference.

To that end, in this issue of the Arid Lands Newsletter we are publishing and archiving nine selected papers from this IALC conference and workshop. In the case of presentations and poster presentations for which no formal paper is available, the IALC web site is archiving all abstracts, as well as all related slide shows and downloadable Portable Document Format (.pdf) files. Extensive cross-links between the two sites make it easy for readers to access the materials of most interest to them, no matter which of the two sites is archiving the relevant materials.

The first of the selected papers published in the issue of ALN is an overview of the representative problems and characteristics of drylands, written by Peter F. Ffolliott and colleagues. The following five papers deal with various aspects of data collection and organization. Kenneth N. Brooks and M'Hammed Tayaa discuss various ways in which watershed management techniques can augment and preserve water supplies in drylands. Dale Johnson and colleagues discuss the inherent spatial variability of arid soils and the implications of this variability for choosing appropriate soil sampling techniques for drylands. Cathy McGuire describes how soil documentation is collected for a progressive soil survey, using techniques developed over the last century by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service). Daniel Neary and colleagues discuss how to assess the capabilities of soil and water resources. Finally, Peter F. Ffolliott and Kenneth N. Brooks present a holistically conceived watershed management approach to land stewardship.

The final three papers presented in this issue deal with providing access to soil and water data by various electronic means. Otto Spaargaren and colleagues present a case study of a prototype Virtual Soil Museum developed by the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC). Anita Coleman provides an overview of the uses and users of digital libraries. Finally, Barbara Hutchinson of the Arid Lands Information Center, University of Arizona, proposes a collaborative approach to building a global arid lands information system--a web-based portal to drylands information aimed at meeting multiple user needs.

To move from these preliminary steps to a full-fledged, completely developed and populated electronic drylands information system will take a great deal of further work and commitment, necessarily entailing collaboration among widely diverse regions, nations, and disciplines. This IALC conference, and the various projects and initiatives described during it and potentially arising from it, represent several steps in the right direction.


(Back to top)
UN Division for Sustainable Development. 2002. Agenda 21. Online: Accessed 1 February 2003.

UNEP 2002. Global Environment Outlook 3: Past, present and future perspectives. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

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