How to improve the life and health of women and children in dryland rural areas ?

Here is the text of my talk at the Beijing Conference on “Women and Desertification” in May 2006:


Desertification is one of the most alarming processes of environmental degradation. The General Assembly of the United Nations has underlined its deep concern for the exacerbation of desertification, particularly in Africa, and its far-reaching implications for the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was called a key instrument for poverty eradication in dryland rural areas.

Generally, the combat of desertification is seen as a task for international and national organizations. Almost every country has ratified the UNCCD and in most cases the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Development Cooperation are responsible for all aspects of the Convention. Nevertheless, one knows that also non-governmental organizations (NGOs) take a lot of interesting initiatives within the framework of drought and desertification.

The Desertification Convention entered into force in 1995. In the beginning, accredited NGOs were authorized to attend the COPs only as observers. It took quite a time to let them participate in the debates. The Convention text underlines clearly the important role of women in regions affected by drought and desertification. As a large number of NGOs are specifically active in those rural areas and they develop activities in favour of the rural people, it is clear that they can play a very important role in the implementation of the Convention, in particular with actions in the field. Therefore, many NGO actions are now seen as valuable contributions to the work of the UNCCD. More and more, the field expertise of the NGOs is taken into consideration.

It sounds peculiar that many NGOs do not recognize themselves that they are combating desertification. This is the result of the fact that almost never the word “desertification” is used in the description of their projects for sustainable development. Here are some examples:

(i) Projects for improvement of the soil are normally indicated as “agronomy project”. It can be measures to limit soil erosion, to reduce land degradation or to rehabilitate land. These are typical means to combat desertification, but they are not classified as such.
(ii) Projects to improve water use by the rural people. In many cases, this is aiming at provision of drinking water (public health). Sometimes, NGO projects also contribute to efficient use of irrigation water, which would normally be classified under desertification measures.
(iii) Many NGO projects contain actions to enhance the fertility of soils and the economic properties of the soil. This is rather seen as an agronomy activity than as a desertification activity.
(iv) Actions to prevent the loss of natural vegetation and also reforestation projects are rather attached to the Biodiversity Convention (CBD).
(v) Attention for actions to combat desertification with measures focusing the alleviation of poverty in the drylands is rather poor. The direct link between poverty and land degradation is generally not recognized.

Desertification is often seen as a natural phenomenon of advancing deserts, but this is a common misperception. On the contrary, desertification is all about land degradation or losses of fertile land and biological productivity, resulting from various factors, including human activities and climatic variations. It affects one third of the earth’s surface and over a billion people, mostly in dryland areas. It contributes to food insecurity and famine, having also devastating consequences in terms of social, economic and political tensions, sometimes even causing conflicts. The rural poor people in developing countries, at the very heart of the drought problem, are particularly vulnerable, because they have to draw their means of existence from the arid and semi-arid ecosystems. Therefore, the UN General Assembly has declared 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification.

Drylands host some of the most magnificent ecosystems of this world: the deserts, unique natural habitats with very diverse fauna and flora, which also host very old civilizations. The International Year of Deserts and Desertification (IYDD) therefore celebrates the beauty and heritage of the world’s deserts.

All countries and civil society organizations have been encouraged to undertake special initiatives to mark the IYDD. A concerted effort to raise awareness of desertification aims at translating ideas, knowledge and expertise into concrete actions in the field. The best practices have been identified. Success stories in the combat of desertification and the alleviation of poverty have been largely illustrated and documented.

Remark inserted today March 10th, 2007

In May 2006 I had the honour and pleasure of being the president of a Belgian NGO, called TC-DIALOGUE Foundation, of which I described the objectives and activities for the participants in Beijing.

For personal reasons, not related to the Foundation itself, I resigned in June 2006. The Foundation is now called “Terr@dialoog” (see coordinates at the end of this posting).

Here is the text of my talk in May 2006:


TC-DIALOGUE Foundation, a Belgian non-profit association, is strongly committed to the combat of desertification and the alleviation of poverty. It is granting a particular attention to humanitarian projects, aiming at reversing the trend of desertification by appropriately applying a combination of traditional agricultural methods with the TerraCottem-technology (TC), developed at the University of Ghent (Belgium). In doing so, TC-DIALOGUE tries to bring true hope for a sustainable solution by organizing relevant actions on the ground, taking into full consideration the local people’s needs and empowering them with real participative responsibility for small scale projects, like community gardens for women and school gardens, combined with afforestation or reforestation initiatives.

Land and water. The world population is expected to increase from the actual 6 to 9 billion in 2050, in particular in developing countries. As a consequence, food production will have to be doubled to meet the food demand of such a fast-growing population. Sustainability of food production depends on the sustainability of two basic resources: land and water. Most of the arable land is already being cultivated. Further expansion of the cultivated area risks to adversely affect the natural environment and to require huge investments in infrastructures, e.g. irrigation systems, to enhance productivity. Therefore, improved management of land and water with cost-effective methods, e.g. the very simple TerraCottem-technology, should become a worldwide priority.

Sustainable use of water is of vital importance for all living organisms on our planet. In many developing countries consumption of fresh water already reached its limits. Water is continuously becoming scarcer and more contaminated with fertilizers and pesticides. Nevertheless, using only optimal methods for watering or irrigation, agriculture should help to solve the problem of fresh water scarcity. At the world’s level, agricultural irrigation uses more than 70% of fresh water. Therefore, improving water use efficiency is one of the most important steps to address our global water needs.

In order to enhance food production with a strict minimum of water in the drylands, TC-DIALOGUE applies a successful method based upon mixing the soil conditioning compound TerraCottem in the upper rootzone (20-30 cm) of the soil. This compound is a granular mixture of some 20 different substances: water absorbent polymers, mineral fertilizers, organic substances, root growth activators and volcanic rock or lava. All components act in a synergistic way to improve plant production with a minimum of water and fertilizers. It is already successfully applied in more than 50 countries, where it saves up to 50 % of the normal water and fertilizer consumption. If applied at larger scale, this can be a key tool for poverty eradication in dryland rural areas, not only saving precious resources, but also improving food security, public health and annual revenues.

Moreover, better soil conditioning practices can expand considerably the area of cultivated land. They can also enhance the water retention capacity of the soil, which leads to improved food production with a minimal consumption of water. In the near future, increasing food demand will have to be tackled with a more efficient use of land and water resources. Thus, enhanced food production should not depend upon increased pumping of water from aquifers or ground water tables, but upon higher water use efficiency. It is generally agreed that there is an urgent need to produce more food with less water. TC-DIALOGUE uses an efficient water and soil conditioning system TerraCottem, improving food production with only 50 % of the normal irrigation volume, while sustaining the ecosystems and the environment.

Integrated approaches must take into account not only scientific and technical, but also the socio-economical and environmental aspects. TC-DIALOGUE wants to play an effective role in the world’s efforts to achieve sustainable development and to eradicate poverty.

Three types of small-scale TC-DIALOGUE projects have shown excellent results in the drylands on all continents and in particular in Africa:


In a community garden for women one or more wells are constructed and the garden is treated with the soil conditioner TerraCottem, developed at the University of Ghent, to enhance plant production in dry regions. Each member of the women’s association of the village gets an opportunity to produce vegetables on a certain part of the community garden. 80 % of the yield goes to the woman and her family, 20 % goes to the local association for additional fertilizers and equipment. Thereby, all women of the village are enabled to produce more food for their families, to enhance their annual income and to improve their standards of living. By planting a living hedge or a windscreen with trees, a contribution to reforestation is realized, in order to solve also the problems of firewood and deforestation.


In a school garden, the children learn how to combine traditional agricultural methods with modern technologies, like the TerraCottem-method. Local teachers show them how to produce vegetables and fruits with a minimum of water and fertilizers. Thus, the children contribute to their own meals, rich in vitamins, at school. If some of the crops are sold, the extra income can be used for acquisition of school equipment. A pupil’s council participates in the management of the school garden. Thereby, the children learn actively how to improve agricultural techniques and irrigation.


The local population participates in the nursery production of indigenous tree species. Young trees (saplings) are offered to surrounding villages and schools, and then planted with TerraCottem soil conditioner. This method enables the people in very dry areas to create a considerable enhancement of the vegetation cover, to combat soil degradation and to improve biodiversity. That kind of projects is a significant contribution to the improvement of the standards of living of women and children, and to the combat of desertification.

Sometimes, two types of projects are combined, e.g. when a community garden or a school garden is to be surrounded with a tree belt, which can also consist of fruit trees.


In 1997–99, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), there were 815 million undernourished people in the world: 777 million in the developing countries, 27 million in transition countries and 11 million in the industrialized countries’ (UNFAO, 2001: 2).

“Undernourishment” means a daily caloric intake that is insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements and it does not refer to shortages of micronutrients, critical for health (iron, iodine, vitamin A). Nutritional deficiencies increase vulnerability to a number of diseases. Indeed, malnutrition is the greatest single risk factor contributing to the global burden of disease. In developing countries adequate nutrition is a determinant of health, economic growth and development. It has also been clearly shown that the relationship between education and nutrition is a dynamic one.

Therefore, it is of the highest importance to set up, at the global level and as soon as possible, concerted actions to eradicate undernourishment, hunger and poverty. However, many people, even after decades of research work leading to good practices and new technologies that can be combined with traditional farming methods, are still asking us: “How can we combat desertification and alleviate hunger and poverty”? Our answer is quite simple, but very effective:

Choose a small number of best practices, apply them at a representatively large scale in the drylands of the different continents and compare the results. It will lead to a selection of a smaller number of best methods and technologies, applicable in a cost-effective way in most of the world’s drylands.

From there off, the real combat of desertification can start, because we will not work anymore in trial-and-error conditions, but with a high degree of certitude that our initiatives will be successful. And each success will most certainly lead to new ones, because the most pleasant way to get into action is to know already that our efforts will be fruitful. It suffices to start with application of the already well-known “best practices” or “success stories” to get ignition of a series of initiatives, convincing the media that we are at the right path towards a better future, and to bring new hope for a better future to the poor rural people. Up to now, our message to them was rather sterile: “Yes, we are working at it”! In other words: “We have been talking about possible solutions for the drought and desertification problems”. But words are stilling hunger! Yet, we know how to combat desertification. So, why don’t we apply at the largest scale the good solutions we already have in hand? It seems so difficult to get a clear answer to this question.


TC-Dialogue Foundation aims at setting up projects in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid regions, using the soil conditioner TERRACOTTEM (TC):

  • To improve soil conditions;
  • To improve plant growth;
  • To save water and nutrients;
  • To mitigate drought;
  • To combat desertification;
  • To alleviate poverty;
  • To combine traditional methods with modern technology;
  • To contribute to capacity building of the local people;
  • To improve the standards of living of rural people.

The main application fields of TERRACOTTEM are:

  • Food production in community gardens and school gardens;
  • Afforestation or reforestation;
  • Combat of wind and water erosion;
  • Improvement of soil fertility;
  • Conditioning of dry, mostly sandy soils;
  • Conditioning of acid or alkaline soils;
  • Conditioning of saline soils.

The Foundation is looking for one or more national or local partners in the host country to set up and follow up a humanitarian project, based upon a bottom-up approach. The partners can be governmental or non-governmental organizations. Together with the partner(s), information is collected about the most urgent problems concerning drought and desertification and the best solutions to be applied.



Burkina Faso 1988 –

Reforestation and creation of community gardens started already in 1988, in cooperation with the Committee Maastricht-Niou (The Netherlands) and sponsored by a number of Belgian companies, amongst which SABENA. A number of woods and gardens have been successfully created in different provinces. This initiative is still extended to other locations. The Committee Maastricht-Niou and TC-Dialogue Foundatian are intensifying their cooperation. Together with another NGO (Sahel Defis), TC-Dialogue will start a new project in the region of Dori (Djomga), where a community garden for women and a school garden will be constructed.

Senegal 2001-2005

With private sponsoring, a community garden for women was created in 2001 in Toubacouta, a village in the delta of the Saloum River north of The Gambia. The garden of 5000 m2 was treated with TerraCottem and totally fenced to keep the cattle out.

In this garden each of 42 women cultivates 100 m2, producing different kinds of vegetables all year long. Yield is going principally to their families. Surplus production is sold to hotels and an army camp. This signifies a considerable improvement of the standards of living. The women’s association pays for the irrigation water and the seeds. Thanks to the TerraCottem soil conditioner only 50 % of the normal irrigation volume is used, thus also reducing labour.

The positive results of this project made an extension of the garden possible and TC-DIALOGUE provided the necessary TerraCottem. Nowadays, a number of improvements are envisaged: some women successfully started growing strawberries and plans are developed to create a special market for the vegetables of the project in a nearby school building.

Togo 2005-

In cooperation with a national NGO (Réveil de la Jeunesse Rurale, RJR), a project has been set up with 20 schools of the Kara region (N. Togo). In each of these schools, a nursery for local trees and a school garden for vegetables and fruits are to be constructed in the next 3 years. Food and fruits will be produced for the children, who in turn will contribute to the reforestation of the eroding hills in the region.

Gambia 2005-

The Belgian NGO “Hands Together” develops community gardens in the region of Bansang (East Gambia) with the support of TC-DIALOGUE. Additional gardens are planned in the Kembuje region (Banjul).

UNDP GAMBIA and TC-Dialogue are applying TerraCottem soil conditioner in 12 gardens around the capital Banjul. It is expected that good results will determine the decision to apply this method at a larger scale for other UNDP-projects.

Algeria 2005-

In cooperation with UNICEF ALGERIA, already existing small family gardens in the refugee camps of the Sahraouis people in the Tindouf area will be treated with TerraCottem and new gardens will be created. The Sahraouis, totally dependent on the food basket delivered by the United Nations Food Program, are living already for 30 years in these camps in the Sahara desert (Southern Algeria) and family gardens are likely to provide more fresh food, the necessary vitamins and oligo-elements, like iron (in relation to anemia). Vegetables and fruit trees, in particular those varieties that can be grown with saline water from the ground water table, will be selected for cultivation in these family gardens. Testing is already going on in a couple of bigger experimental gardens.

A partnership between UNICEF ALGERIA, SOS KINDERDORF (VILLAGE D’ENFANTS) ALGER and TC-DIALOGUE Foundation was leading to the creation of several family gardens (100 m2 each) and a bigger demonstration garden in Draria (Algiers).

Malawi 2006-

The Belgian NGO “KwasaKwasa” and TC-Dialogue are planning the construction of some family gardens and school gardens to improve fresh food production in this drought affected country.


China 1995-1996

In order to obtain the necessary authorization to import the Belgian TC soil conditioner in the P.R. China, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has set up a number of tests on different vegetables in 11 provinces. All reports come to positive conclusions concerning the water saving and biomass enhancing properties of TC. It was recommended for further application in China.

China 1995-1999

Cooperating with the Bureau of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry of Lanzhou (Gansu Province), a magnificent project was realized, leading to the construction of 82 Chinese greenhouses, in which the TC soil conditioner was applied to limit irrigation and consumption of the scarce fresh water in this high altitude area. With 50 % of the irrigation water, up to 200 % of the normal vegetable production was achieved. Selling these vegetables in wintertime to the hotels and restaurants in the nearby city, annual income of the villagers was significantly enhanced.

China 1997-1999

Cooperating with some Inner-Mongolian authorities, in particular those of the Dalate County and Mrs WANG Guoxiang, Vice-Governor, TC-Dialogue Foundation has set up a large number of tests:

  • Growing fruit trees with TC (peaches, apples)
  • Growing fodder plants and poplars on desert sands.

All trials were extremely positive.

China 2004-2008

Demonstration of restoring the Juniperus sabina vegetation and gaining biodiversity, using TC soil conditioner in Inner Mongolia (P.R.China).

The Project location is Sarula-Gacha, Abaga Banner, Xilingol League of Inner Mongolia (P.R. China). The cooperation agreement was signed in China in November 2004 and the project started in May 2005. It is a cooperation between TC-DIALOGUE Foundation (Belgium), ASED (Association for Sustainable Ecological and Socio-Economic development, P.R. China), the village of Sarula-Gacha, Abaga Banner, Bureau of Forestry and Water Resources of Abaga Banner and the Government of Abaga Banner. The 1st evaluation after 1 year gave significantly better results when rooted cuttings were planted in TC treated soil.

India 2001-2002

A demonstration project for the production of tomatoes with TC was set up in the Himachal Pradesh region. Cooperating with the NGO RUCHI, local farmers produced 2-3 times more tomatoes than before and this with only a limited amount of irrigation water.

Pakistan 2001-2002

A demonstration project, set up with the NGO SCOPE PAKISTAN, was very successful in the Gadap area, close to Karachi. The local Farmer’s Union produced significantly more tomatoes with TC than with their traditional method (along irrigation canals). Adult fruit trees in poor condition, due to drought, revived and started producing after TC treatment of the soil around their roots.

Lebanon 2001-2004

In May 2001, 4 NGOs (the Lebanese MAKHZOUMI Foundation, the Greek associations INARE and KEDE, and our Belgian TC-DIALOGUE Foundation) launched an agroforestry project. It was largely sponsored by the Greek Government. The general objective was to combat desertification and erosion, but also to contribute to the awareness building about the problems of land degradation for the local people. Conferences and training sessions focused on the application of modern techniques for planting and soil conditioning. Schools participated in the project. Students learned about these technologies, but also about the importance of reforestation for people (daily life and economy) and for nature (biodiversity, ecology and combat of soil degradation). Women also were associated with the initiative.

In Akkar (N. Lebanon) 20 tree species were grown in a nursery (fruit trees, indigenous conifers, oaks and the famous Lebanese cedar). In 2002-2004 some 51.000 saplings were distributed over several villages and planted with TerraCottem. Farmers, local authorities and schools of 49 villages in N. and central Lebanon participated in the project. Thanks to our efforts and the well-organized information sessions the survival rate of trees was 80 %. Small village nurseries constitute now a valuable tool for the improvement of standards of living of the poor rural people.

The project was ended in April 2004, but the local partner (Makhzoumi Foundation) wants to continue this success story. TC-DIALOGUE Foundation will have an advising role.


Here are some figures of the costs-benefits analysis of tomato production on one the TC-Dialogue projects:

  • Required irrigation volume: 60%
  • Survival rate of planted saplings: 35%
  • Average production per plant: 60%
  • Average production per hectare: 118%
  • Net income after 1 growing season: 150%


All these different successful projects have made clear that it is quite simple to improve the life and health of women and children within the shortest periods possible. It suffices to apply the soil conditioner TerraCottem (TC) to create a series of remarkable consequences:

  • The soil properties improve.
  • Water retention capacity of the soil enhances.
  • Soil fertility improves gradually over years.
  • Plant production enhances.
  • Provision of vitamins and minerals at a yearly basis grows considerably.
  • Annual income grows.
  • The socio-economic situation of the beneficiaries improves gradually.


This is the text of my talk on May 30th, 2006 in Beijing, China. Since then a number of things have drastically changed. I am now an independent consultant on Desertification and Sustainable Development. The TC-DIALOGUE Foundation changed its name into “Terra@dialoog”. It is still a non-profit organization and can be contacted for more information at:

Speelmansrei 22



President: Dr. Daniël SOMERS (


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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