Impending Desertification Prevented by Termites?? How Is It Done?
Bonachela, J.A., Pringle, R.M., Sheffer, E., Coverdale, T.C., Guyton, J.A., Caylor, K.K., Levin, S.A. and Tarnita, C.E. 2015. Termite mounds can increase the robustness of dryland ecosystems to climatic change.
in Science 347: 651-655.
Introducing their intriguing study, Bonachela et al. (2015) note that in arid and semi-arid savannas and grasslands, plants facilitate neighbors by increasing water infiltration while competing for water with distant individuals, citing Rietkerk et al. (2002). And they go on to say that “reducing rainfall generates a predictable sequence of patterns with decreasing overall plant biomass,” going from over-dispersed gaps to “labyrinths, spots, and finally, barren desert,” which last transition, in their words, “is known as a ‘catastrophic shift,’ or sudden collapse to an un-vegetated state,” citing Rietkerk et al. (2004) and Scheffer et al. (2009).
In the midst of one of Africa’s largest slums, vegetables are growing.
It began as a French initiative to support jobless youth after a spasm of post-election violence in 2008 – and feed them at the same time.
The ‘garden-in-a-sack’ concept, introduced by the NGO Solidarites International, makes it possible to grow food in small spaces and save money for other purchases. In Mathare, Kiambiu and Kibera slums, with close to 3 million inhabitants, Solidarités has brought sack-gardening to about 22,109 households, directly benefitting over 110,000 people.
The upright urban farms in Kibera consist of a series of sacks filled with manure, soil and small stones that enable water to drain. From the tops and sides of these sacks, referred to as multi-story gardens, Kibera farmers grow kale, spinach, onions, tomatoes, vegetables and arrowroot which sprout from the tops and sides.
Today, Kibera has thousands of sack gardens spread across 16 villages in the slum, according to Douglas Kangi, principal agricultural officer on the Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture Project at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Across Africa, informal growing operations are expected to become critical in the coming years. With a constant stream of people leaving the farms for the cities, the continent’s urban population is set to top 700 million by 2030 up from 400 million today and 53 million in 1960, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
City farming, either in sacks or on small bits of land, has taken root in Cameroon, Malawi and Ghana with 25 to 50 percent of all city households said to be engaged in food cropping. In Malawi, 700,000 city dwellers have home gardens. In Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, some schools have their own gardening programmes.
“For policy decisions to be both scientifically and politically legitimate, the contributions of scientific evidence and expertise, as well as non-scientific considerations need to be transparent and accountable.”
by Erik Millstone
Much of the science on policy-relevant issues is incomplete and unresolved
Related evidence, uncertainties and expert interpretation must be made public
Revealing assumptions will help science truly contribute to sustainability
Science can help and hinder knowledge of sustainability so we need a better grasp of its role, says Erik Millstone.
Debates about the ecological unsustainability of industrial economies emerged because of scientific research into environmental changes — research that produced evidence of harm to natural resources, animals and people. While this illustrates that science is essential, we should recognise that it is also often problematic, especially in policy debates.
Few would argue against the goals of ‘sustainability’. But the different parties involved — governments, organisations or companies, for example — make many conflicting assumptions about what should be sustained and what should be modified or eradicated. This accounts for the different perspectives of organisations and individuals who pursue their interests by trying to impose their perspectives, for instance by trying to control policy and research agendas, assessments and conclusions.
Man working in a farm irrigated by sprinklers in Jaffna (photo: Hamish John Appleby/IWMI).
Achieving water sustainability in Jaffna
Groundwater is the only reliable source of fresh water for most residents of the Jaffna Peninsula. Yet, as mentioned in a recent Lindha Langa article, this vital resource is currently undergoing rapid contamination from oil, sewage, and agrochemical dumping. Saltwater intrusion has also increased due to a higher rate of groundwater extraction as indicated by the International Water Management Institute’s (IWMI) 2013 aquifer characterization study in Jaffna. The resulting damage to the aquifer is very difficult to reverse, and any efforts to do so would take many years. Immediate action is necessary to ensure the sustainability of Jaffna’s groundwater resources for future generations.
Several strategies have been proposed to accomplish this goal. None can do the entire job alone, however. According to Herath Manthrithilake, Head, Sri Lanka Development Initiative, IWMI, a combination of approaches is needed to establish a more sustainable and equitable water management system in the Jaffna region. Five feasible strategies are outlined below; the first two are current government projects in development while the final three are potentially viable approaches based on IWMI analysis.
In 2011, Economy Minister Emmanuel Djoumessi Nganou was quoted by Reuters: “The private sector in general, and the agricultural sector in particular, must play a leading role in our country’s quest to become an emerging economy by 2035.” The government had just approved plans for an oil palm and rubber plantation of more than 45,000 hectares by the company Sud Hevea Cameroun. Current estimates put the number of jobs the company has created or will create at more than 6,000.
But Greenpeace and several other organizations say that instead of having an overarching strategy that governs how land should be used for extractives, communities, and conservation, concessions and permits are distributed by individual ministries that are stymied by corruption and don’t often communicate with each other.
In her blog post on the Guardian’s Global development blog, Professor Lyla Mehta, report team leader, and professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, writes that, “There is no doubt that land, food and water issues are linked. The barriers to joined-up national and global policies do not derive from a lack of technology or resources. Rather they are rooted in the absence of human rights, and the failure to recognise that water and food are intertwined.”
Launched on May 15, a landmark report by the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) for the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) argues that access to water is a vital aspect of ensuring improved food security and nutrition. Moving beyond the scope of looking at the role of water not only for agriculture but also sanitation, the report calls for an integrated approach at higher levels of policy implementation and governance to ensure that the poorest and most marginalized communities have equitable access to the inputs and resources that they need to improve their lives and livelihoods.
The press release highlights that effective policy interventions should therefore:
Understand that water plays a role in every aspect of life, from consumption to production
Prioritize the rights and interests of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups, with a particular focus on women
Acknowledge the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation as well as the right to food as globally recognized rights.
Boko Haram isn’t the only threat facing in the region. Desertification has reduced the surface area of Lake Chad from approximately 25,000 square kilometers (9,600 square miles) to nearly 1,350 square kilometers (520 square miles).
In Photos: On the Banks of Despair With Lake Chad’s Boko Haram Refugees
Hunted by a coalition of armies after brutally killing thousands of people in 2014, members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram are now hiding on hundreds of small, inaccessible islands scattered across Lake Chad, a large and shallow body of water bordered by Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Nigeria.
The lake, which provides water to more than 68 million people, is already losing vegetation and wildlife due to desertification. Now, in Chad, one of the poorest areas in the region, Boko Haram has started attacking neighboring villages, burning down houses, and jeopardizing communities already devastated by hunger, malnutrition, and a trade embargo with Nigeria.