Like most people living along the Sahel – the drylands between Africa’s tropical savannahs and the Sahara Desert – Mustafa Ba is all too familiar with the effects of desertification.
Thanks to a combination of overgrazing and deforestation, he has watched the countryside around his Senegalese village, Mboula, turn into a dusty, unproductive wasteland.
“Trees provide us with many benefits,” explains Mustafa, as we sit on a mat in the centre of his village. “They are good for the soil and important for food security.”
But in impoverished regions of rural Africa, selling firewood is a source of quick cash and many trees along the Sahel have been felled. Communities have paid a high price for such enterprise; with no trees to protect the land, vast swathes of the Sahel have succumbed to desertification.
According to the United Nations, Mustafa is one of 850 million people – nearly one eighth of the global population – to be directly affected by this process of land degradation.
But it’s not just a local problem; desertification has an impact on food production, which pushes up grocery bills around the world (the UN estimates Guatemala alone loses 24 per cent of its agricultural GDP due to desertification).
To raise awareness of the issue, the UN reserved June 17 as World Day to Combat Desertification, but behind the rhetoric it has also been supporting projects to tackle the phenomenon head on. One of those is Great Green Wall of Africa, a 4,800-mile “wall” of trees that is being planted across the continent between Senegal and Djibouti.
It took years to secure funding for this ambitious project but with the help of the African Union, European Union, World Bank and other international investors, it was approved in 2011. Mustafa was delighted.
China has been battling large-scale desertification since at least the 1950s, when the young People’s Republic went on a nation-building spree, razing farm and wild lands to build cities and create infrastructure to accommodate a growing population. Such human activity left much of the land unprotected against wind erosion and deposition from the surrounding deserts.
“[It’s like what the] American farmer did to cause the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” says Xian Xue, a leading expert on aeolian desertification in China and professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
In a big move to address the problem, in 1978, the Chinese government implemented the Three-North Shelterbelt Project, a national ecological engineering effort that called for the planting of millions of trees along the 2,800-mile border of northern China’s encroaching desert, while increasing the world’s forest by 10 percent. Also known as the “Great Green Wall,” the project’s end date isn’t until 2050; so far, more than 66 billion trees have been planted.
However, some say the Great Green Wall hasn’t been the perfect solution.
Figure 3.1: Portulacaria afra Jacq. (spekboom) tree. Notice the skirt of rooted branches
Spekboom multiplication for combating desertification
by Prof. Dr. Willem VAN COTTHEM
Ghent University (Belgium)
One of the most interesting African plant species used to combat desertification, limiting soil erosion, producing a dense vegetation cover and a remarkable number of small, edible leaves (fodder, but also vitamin-rich food for humans), is the Spekboom or Elephant’s Bush (Portulacaria afra).
This plant species is swiftly covering dry, eroding soils and should be recommended to all global projects for alleviation of drought, combat of land degradation and halting of wind erosion.
My good friend Johan VAN DE VEN of Bamboo Sur was so kind to offer me some rooted cuttings. These are growing very well in pots and PET-bottles in my garden in Belgium.
In order to study different ways of multiplication of this Spekboom (with succulent branches and leaves), I started taking off small lateral shoots (cuttings) and planted them in some potting soil in a cake box. I also planted some of the succulent leaves (see my photos below).
Within the plastic cake box humidity is kept high (condensation of droplets on the cover). Therefore, I opened the cover from time to time to let some fresh air (oxygen) in.
Quite soon both the cuttings and the separate leaves started rooting. The cuttings swiftly developed some new leaves. A month later I transplanted them into small plastic bottles, twice perforated 2-3 cm above the bottom (for drainage, keeping a small quantity of water at the bottom for moistening the bottle’s content and the rootball).
Once fully rooted within the plastic bottle, I cut off the bottom of the bottle to set the lower part of the rootball free. Then I planted the young Spekboom in a plant pit without taking off the plastic bottle, sitting as a plastic cylinder around the rootball. That plastic cylinder continued to keep the rootball moistened (almost no evaporation) and it offered possibilities to water the sapling from time to time, whenever needed. Irrigation water runs through the plastic cylinder towards the bottom of the rootball, growing freely in the soil (irrigation water directed towards the roots growing into the soil at the bottom of the plant pit). Thus a high survival rate was guaranteed.
It is clear that multiplication of the Spekboom with rooting cuttings and leaves is very easy. It is another interesting aspect of this remarkable plant. I can only recommend a broader use of the Spekboom for reforestation, fodder production and even production of bonsais for enhancement of the annual income (export to developed countries).
Here are some photos of this experiment.
—————-Considering that people working at the Great Green Wall in Africa (or any other interested group on other continents) are looking for practical solutions to cover as soon as possible huge areas of a desertified region, one is tempted to believe that setting up nurseries to produce a sufficient number of plants should not be a problem (as these plants only need a minimum of water).
I keep dreaming of successes booked with this nice edible plant species in the combat of desertification. The day will come that the Elephant bush will be growing in all the drought-affected regions of the world. Animals will eat from it, but also malnourished children and hungry adults will find it an interesting supplement to their food.
Environmental degradation and climate change are threatening the livelihoods of local communities living near the Sahara. An ambitious greening plan aims to prevent the spread of desertification in the region.
Africa’s “great green wall” of vegetation should run 7,700 kilometers (4831 miles) across the Sahara and Sahel from Senegal to Djibouti. This vast stretch of trees is meant to reverse land degradation and combat poverty by creating jobs and boosting food security. Not everyone thinks planting trees in the desert is the best approach to land restoration. But Robert Winterbottom of the World Resources Institute told DW about some of the project’s successes and how ideas about desertification are changing.
DW: Can you start by telling me about the problem the Great Green Wall is addressing?
Robert Winterbottom: I guess even the word desertification is a little confusing but we are working to reverse land degradation, by which we mean, the reduction or loss of what you can do with land in terms of productivity, agriculture, pastures and forest. It is a global issue but is particularly severe in the Sahel region.
Land degradation is really the loss of properties of the land, the water, the soil and so on, and the last stage is when it becomes a desert, which is then desertification.
I have heard it described as the Sahara desert expanding and your building a buffer to hold it back, but that is not quite the case, is it?
This is an old-fashioned way of thinking and scientifically, it’s wrong. Scientifically if you look at a very old picture, a satellite image or even an old map, you will see that actually the desert has not changed much recently. Of course, in some areas there is some sand movement but basically the desert is a relatively stable ecosystem.
But it is true that very early when we were talking about the Great Green Wall, probably it was a way to have a picture in mind. It was a way of creating momentum with political leaders, but when you work with people on the ground, with farmers and villagers, things become quite different. It is a case of working to restore agro forestry parklands in the Sahel with a diversity of trees and plants.
You talked about how the idea of an encroaching desert might have made it easy to understand and therefore to sell politically, can you talk a bit about how far this project began, because the concept goes back a long time.
Around the middle of 2005, the president of Nigeria launched the idea at a conference of the African Union. And one of the stronger supporters after that was President Wade of Senegal. It was a strong point on his political agenda.
Sorry, no images of the progress of the GGW available (W. Van Cotthem)
Africa: Battle of the Desert (II) – A ‘Great Green Wall for Africa’
By Baher Kamal
Desertification, land degradation, drought, climate change, food insecurity, poverty, loss of biodiversity, forced migration and conflicts, are some of the key challenges facing Africa–a giant continent home to 1,2 billion people living in 54 countries.
And they are huge challenges indeed, in particular affecting Africa’s vulnerable drylands. Just think that the drylands of North Africa, Sahel and Horn of Africa extend over 1.6 billion hectares home to about 500 million people, i.e. slightly less than half of the entire population of the continent.
Such rapidly deteriorating situation, which has been exacerbated by climate change and its growing impact, has mobilised more than 20 African countries around the Sahara (North, East and West), international organisations, research institutes, civil society and grassroots organisations, to build together what has been called: The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI) or simply Africa’s Great Green Wall (GGW).
On this, Nora Berrahmouni, Forestry Officer (Drylands) at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), tells IPS in an interview that the GGW core area (focus area for intervention identified) is about 780 million hectares.
What is this Wall all about? “Africa’s Great Green Wall, the so-called “Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI)” is a Pan African initiative, established and endorsed by the African Union in 2007 and it is Africa’s flagship initiative to combat the effects of climate change, desertification, food insecurity and poverty.”
A farmer transporting hay to Tera weekly market, Tera, Bajirga, Niger.
10 million hectares a year in need of restoration along the Great Green Wall
Restoration needs along Africa’s drylands have been mapped and quantified for the first time
A groundbreaking map of restoration opportunities along Africa’s Great Green Wall has been launched at the UN climate change conference, based on collection and analysis of crucial land-use information to boost action in Africa’s drylands to increase the resilience of people and landscapes to climate change. “The Great Green Wall initiative is Africa’s flagship programme to combat the effects of climate change and desertification,” said Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division, while presenting the new map at the COP22 in Marrakech. “Early results of the initiative’s actions show that degraded lands can be restored, but these achievements pale in comparison with what is needed,” he added during a high-level event at the African Union Pavilion entitled: “Resilient Landscapes in Africa’s Drylands: Seizing Opportunities and Deepening Commitments”. Mansur hailed the new assessment tool used to produce the map as a vital instrument providing critical information to understand the true dimension of restoration needs in the vast expanses of drylands across North Africa, Sahel and the Horn. Drawing on data collected on trees, forests and land use in the context of the Global Drylands Assessment conducted by FAO and partners in 2015-2016, it is estimated that 166 million hectares of the Great Green Wall area offer opportunities for restoration projects. The Great Green Wall’s core area crosses arid and semi-arid zones on the North and south sides of the Sahara. Its core area covers 780 million hectares and it is home to 232 million people. To halt and reverse land degradation, around 10 million hectares will need to be restored each year, according to the assessment. This will be major a contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The data were obtained by analysing 63 000 half-hectare sample plots spread across the drylands of North Africa, Sahel and the Horn with FAO’s Open Foris Collect Earth tool and very-high-resolution satellite images provided by Google Earth Engine and Bing Maps. The data collection is a collaborative effort of the African Union, the CILSS/AGRHYMET Regional Centre, the Directorate General of Forests (Tunisia), Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), FAO, Google and the World Resources Institute. A great green mosaic
Tunnels of drought-tolerant plants in the drylands to combat desertification and feed people and livestock.
by Prof. Dr. Willem VAN COTTHEM (Ghent University, Belgium)
When I tell people that this is feasible, they ask me if it’s only a dream. And yet, it would be easy to construct ten thousands, even one hundred thousands of living tunnels. It suffices to choose available wooden species (trees and shrubs), native or adapted to the region. Here is a non-limited series of examples for the drylands of Africa, but one can certainly make a list of Asian, Australian or American species too:
In 2003, I brought home from Arizona a couple of cuttings of the drought-tolerant Navajo willow (Salix matsudana var. Navajo) and planted them in my garden in Belgium. They were rooting and growing extremely quickly (as Belgium is far from being a dryland). Today in 2016, they reach a height of 14 meter. In April 2011, I started building a teepee with cuttings of my “Belgian” Navajo willows. It soon became a nice “living hut”, which brought me to the idea that it would be possible to construct “living tunnels” with similar cuttings of drought-tolerant trees or shrubs.
Without exaggeration I can tell that I always get a sort of happy feeling under the canopy of trees or in a tree tunnel. Most trees can easily be sculpted by pruning into many forms, thus altering their growth. One of these forms is a tunnel. One can use it as an excellent construction for a shady walk, but my thoughts are oriented upon an application as a fantastic location for family gardening (a kitchen garden) in the drylands.
Let us have a look at some examples and thereby imagine that a family in the drylands could use these as a “garden”, where, in the shadow inside the tunnel vegetables and herbs, even fruits, can be grown to feed the family.
Now, let this be a dream for nomadic people: living houses here and there along the track. Nevertheless, even this dream can be realized !
The Sahara is the most famous desert in the world and is instantly recognisable by its golden sand and giant rolling dunes. Despite its uniform and unvarying appearance, it is thought that the Sahara region is climatically changeable and has the capacity to drastically vary in size and form. For instance, evidence from ancient paintings suggests that during the first ages of human civilisation it was a much wetter, more fertile environment.
The Sahara desert is also the world’s largest desert (excluding the Antarctic). With an area of 9 400 000km2 it covers around 10% of the African continent and is almost as large as China. The major issue today is that it is still growing via desertification.
Though it is not often covered in the press, the growth of the Sahara is a human crisis on a grand scale, with 18 million people in the Sahel region, a semi-arid band just south of the desert, now facing a major food crisis. For example, this year Burkina Faso is facing a 32 000-ton rice shortage as farm land is being destroyed and rainfall is being reduced by the encroaching Sahara.
The answer proposed by a transcontinental group of African nations may seem at first like an idea for a children’s novel, but it may yet be the drastic solution needed to save millions. The group has proposed a giant wall, 15km wide and 8000km long, composed of plants, trees and bushes to stretch across the continent of Africa. It will stretch along the southern border of the Sahara desert in order to attempt to stop desertification of the Sahel area of the country.
It is a grand idea for a grand problem: Around 40% of the entire African continent has now succumbed to desertification and this is increasing year on year. The hope is that this giant hedgerow will trap the Sahara dust and stop its progress into Sub-Saharan regions. Perhaps even returning the Sahara to the more pleasant region depicted in early paintings.
The effects of farmer managed natural regreening in Niger.
Can the Great Green Wall change direction?
By Kieron Monks, for CNN
(CNN)A 7,700-kilometer wall of trees, running through 11 countries along the southern frontier of the Sahara Desert.
That’s what the African Union proposed in 2007, a “Great Green Wall” that was to be the largest living structure on the planet.
The purpose was to provide a mighty barrier against the advance of the Sahara, and to reverse the plague of desertification spreading drought, famine and poverty through the Sahel region.
The Great Green Wall Initiative for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI) has since gained rocket boosters. Today, the Initiative has 21 African countries participating, over $4 billion of pledged funding, and heavyweight partners from the World Bank to the French government.
The projects has sky-high ambitions; to restore 50 million hectares of land, provide food security for 20 million people, create 350,000 jobs, and sequester 250 million tons of carbon.
Work is already well underway. The GGWSSI recently claimed that 15% of trees have been planted, largely in Senegal, with four million hectares of land restored.
But the grand vision rests on a suspect premise.
There is a consensus among scientists that that the Sahara Desert is not advancing.
“The southern edge of the Sahara Desert moves up and down according to long-term climate cycles,” says Dr. Jonathan Davies, head of the Global Drylands Initiative at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “The data shows that over the last 20-30 years it has actually retreated north by about 200 kilometres.”
A farmer in southern Zinder, Niger, collects leaves that will feed his sheep. (Chris Reij)
The “Great Green Wall” Didn’t Stop Desertification, but it Evolved Into Something That Might
The multibillion-dollar effort to plant a 4,000-mile-long wall of trees hit some snags along the way, but there’s still hope
It was a simple plan to combat a complex problem. The plan: plant a Great Green Wall of trees 10 miles wide and 4,350 miles long, bisecting a dozen countries from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. The problem: the creeping desertification across Africa.
“The desert is a spreading cancer,” Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s president and the wall’s standard bearer, said. “We must fight it. That is why we have decided to join in this titanic battle.”
There were just a few problems.
Planting trees across the Sahel, the arid savanna on the south border of the Sahara Desert, had no chance to succeed. There was little funding. There was no science suggesting it would work. Moreover, the desert was not actually moving south; instead, overuse was denuding the land. Large chunks of the proposed “wall” were uninhabited, meaning no one would be there to care for the saplings.
Soon after Wade began touting the tree planting plan, scientists began dissenting.
“This was a stupid way of restoring land in the Sahel,” says Dennis Garrity, a senior research fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre.
“If all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia,” adds Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institutewho has been working in Africa since 1978. “Essentially 80 percent or more of planted trees have died.”
Reij, Garrity and other scientists working on the ground knew what Wade and other political leaders did not: that farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso, in particular, had discovered a cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms.
Some 11 African countries are making headway in their ambitious pan-African effort to plant trees along the edge of the Sahara desert, the world largest, and beat back its spread into more arable land southwards.
The plan dubbed the ‘Great Green Wall’ seeks to counter the spread of Sahara Desert in Africa was launched in 2007 and was estimated to cost more than $2 billion up to completion.
It has already made considerable step with several nations involved in the intitiative, including Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Senegal, experiencing environmental and employment boom.
In Senegal, 11 million trees have been planted while in neighboring Nigeria, the project has created 20,000 jobs in rural parts of the West African nation, Positive.News reported.
At least two million seedlings have been planted in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, leading to restoration of 2,500 hectares of land.
The project will save at least 60 million people from leaving their homesteads, and social implications of the displacement such as joining extremist groups in the region, such as Boko Haram.