“Two sides of the same coin” - tackling desertification in Africa
For some of us, deserts conjure up images of vast sand dunes rolling away under a blazing sun, devoid of life and water. Think Lawrence of Arabia or The English Patient. The reality, however, is very different and far more complex. Desertification comes in many forms, and climate change is making it worse.
It’s true that desertification - or land degradation as it is increasingly known - is more common in those regions which already suffer from lack of water. But across the globe, over-development, intensive farming, over-grazing, soil erosion, poor soil nutrition and deforestation all play their part. The impact on the people who live and work on the land can be devastating.
“If all the vegetation disappears from the land in a hot, dry climate, it’s very difficult to restore it,” says Michael Cherlet, one of the lead authors of the World Atlas of Desertification. “Land degradation means the land loses capacity to provide ecosystem services and the production to sustain life and biodiversity. If you ask too much from the land, and you don’t put back in what you take out, you will degrade it. Desertification itself is a misleading term. Land degradation in specific areas is due to human activity, but it is also aggravated by climate change.”
The latest edition of the Atlas - published by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission - paints an alarming picture. Population growth and increased consumption are putting unprecedented pressure on natural resources. More than three-quarters of the planet’s land is already degraded, with more than four million km² - that’s half of the size of the entire European Union - being lost each year. Africa and Asia are the worst affected.
“Soil is an important part of the land, and soil erosion is very visible, it’s an obvious indicator that land may be degraded. But it is by no means the only one. Deforestation is another clear sign - if you cut trees down, when it rains the soil is washed away, then you have land degradation,” says Michael.
“Land degradation is two sides of the same coin. Of course, it is made worse by climate change, especially if you have less rain. But it also makes climate change worse, because if you lose vegetation which acts as a carbon sink, you get more carbon emissions. You get all these feedback loops happening together, which means you have to tackle them together.”
Desertification is one of the most damaging of climate change impacts, destroying livelihoods and habitats. Across Africa, the EU-funded flagship climate change programme GCCA+ is running multiple projects aimed at reducing or even reversing the impacts of desertification. In the Sahel, for example - one of the worst hit areas - farmers in Chad have been supplied with solar-powered water pumps which not only provide drinking water for their households and their cattle, but enable them to grow crops on land which would otherwise be too dry. A €21 million EU funded programme across West Africa is piloting climate smart agriculture in Benin, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, ranging from planting drought-resistant rice varieties to an integrated agriculture and livestock project for women and young people.
“The Sahel is a low resilience area, people are poor, and you get all these issues coming together,” says Michael. “Then you have a problem because you increase the stress on the land and you have multiple problems to deal with. If you get two drought years running you can’t grow anything, and if it rains too much it washes everything away.”
The solutions are often surprisingly low-tech. “Very simple sustainable land practices such as mulching, composting or constructing little stone barriers to stop water flowing away are frequently the most effective,” says Michael. “It’s more about educating people than spending money. I have seen some big high-tech projects in Africa which have failed because they cost too much and they can’t be maintained.”
Michael points to the example of the Great Green Wall as evidence that land degradation can be halted. “It started with a rather simplistic idea to plant trees and stop the desert advancing,” he explains. “The EU was a big supporter, and now it’s about much more than tree planting, it’s a society capacity building project, it’s participatory, it’s whole communities not only planting trees but adopting sustainable farming methods, growing seedlings and creating integrated combined forest agricultural systems which are much better.”
In Mali, for example, GCCA+ works with Sahel Eco in rural communities to train farmers to regenerate the land naturally. “In the past, I would cut down and burn trees to clear land,” says Ousmane Guindo, a farmer from Sokoura. “But then there was nothing to stop the wind. The crops got buried in sand and yields were very poor. So I started leaving tree stumps intact and nurturing new shoots - the leaves decompose and fertilise my crops, I have a regular supply of wood for cooking, crop yields are better, and the trees provide welcome shade when we work.”
It’s not just the Sahel where EU-funded projects are making a difference. In Tanzania, five ‘eco-village’ projects aim to help vulnerable communities adapt to the adverse effects of climate change including desertification. For example, the ECO-BOMA project integrates traditional Maasai strategies to cope with extreme weather conditions with modern solutions such as solar bottle lamps and biogas technology. In Mozambique, where drought is also a major concern, villagers in Chitsuluine installed two solar-powered water tanks which serve more than 1300 people. “Everyone was involved - residents, children, teachers, livestock farmers. I really think it brings people together, it creates a sense of unity among them,” says village leader Efrainme Anslmocossa.
“Humans are both the cause of land degradation and the solution,” says Michael. “I believe in the survival reflex of humanity, and I do believe we will be able to adapt our consumption, become less global and more local. But we also have to change the way we use the land - many agricultural practices are not sustainable. We need to maintain a human-ecological balance, and if we don’t - like in the Sahel - then we have a problem.”