If current trends continue, two-thirds of Africa’s arable land could be lost to desertification by 2025. But sprouting from the parched earth are the green shoots of optimism, writes Gavin Haines
Earlier this year, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) conducted the first financial impact assessment of desertification for more than 20 years. The organisation aimed to find out to what extent the phenomenon was affecting the global economy and where its effects were being felt the most.
The results, which were released in June this year, made for alarming reading. It discovered that 168 countries worldwide were suffering from desertification and drought, costing the global economy up to US$490 billion annually in lost agriculture.
The UNCCD calculated that up to 5% of the world’s agricultural GDP had been lost due to land degradation, although the figure for Africa was much higher, at 12%. In its conclusion, the study claimed that Africa is the region most vulnerable to the phenomenon of desertification and predicted that two-thirds of the continent’s arable land could be lost by 2025.
“This is the first economic valuation of the cost of desertification and drought in over twenty years,” says Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, which was set up in 1994 to deal with global land degradation.
“It shows that desertification, land degradation and drought are key constraints to building social and environmental resilience, achieving global food security and delivering meaningful poverty reduction.”
Indeed, the social costs are staggering – nearly 870 million people globally are going hungry because of land degradation. In East Africa alone nearly 3.7 million people needed food assistance due to the drought of 2011, the UNCCD study reported.
Africa is by no means alone in the fight against desertification. In fact Guatemala is even more affected by the phenomenon and is losing 24% of its agricultural GDP annually, while even the green and pleasant land of Britain is suffering from the problem.
“You don’t need a desert for a country to suffer from desertification,” explains Michele Bozzano, a Research Support Officer for Bioversity International. “Despite what some people think, desertification is not about the advancing of the desert – we are not talking about sand encroachment here – desertification describes the breaking of an equilibrium, which turns the land into desert.”
Typically, the equilibrium in Africa is being broken by intensive farming and deforestation, which has turned once-fertile land across the continent into dust. In a speech during this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification, Kenya’s Environmental Secretary Alice Kaudia pleaded with Kenyans to actively guard against deforestation, charcoal burning and other factors that exacerbate desertification. However, in a country where so many people are living in poverty, such requests are likely to fall on deaf ears.
“Farmers have an awareness of sustainability – they know when they are overdoing it,” says Bozzano. “But when they have to buy medicine for their children they will keep exploiting the land.”
The economic implications of desertification in Africa are felt way beyond its parched soil; in this ‘global village’ we live in, crop failure and displaced citizens soon become other nations’ problems (think increased grocery bills and immigration).
Desertification, then, is an international issue and international issues require international solutions. One solution being mooted is a UN-backed land restoration project known as the Great Green Wall, which is a pan-African version of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement (GBM), established by Professor Wangari Maathai in 1977.
The GBM empowered Kenyan women to ease pressure on the land by teaching them about tree planting, sustainable farming and beekeeping. Over 51 million trees have been planted since the movement started and in 2004 Wangari Maathai was recognised for her achievements and became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since then the Great Green Wall project has been gaining traction. At 7775km (4831 miles) long and 15km (9 miles) wide, it was originally intended to snake through 11 sub-Saharan countries, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, but the project has since evolved to involve more than 20 African nations. It will no longer be simply a wall of trees either.
“It’s more of a green mosaic than a wall,” explains Nora Berrahmouni, a Forestry Officer for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO). “It’s not just about planting trees – it could be shrubs or herbaceous plants. It’s about mimicking nature, and in nature you don’t just see trees.”
It took years to secure funding, but with the help of the African Union, European Union, World Bank and other international and local investors, planting began in Senegal in 2011 – to date approximately 12 million trees have been planted as part of the project.
In many ways Kenya’s Green Belt Movement – and, more recently, the Great Green Wall – has become a poster child for counter-desertification projects, and not just in Africa. Governments around the world are keeping a close eye on such plans to see what they can learn; on a recent fact-finding mission to Africa the Turkish politician Ismail Belen romantically described the Great Green Wall as a ‘modern-day Silk Road, only green.’
His description was accurate because, as with the Silk Road, economics are at the heart of the Great Green Wall; this is not just about planting a few shrubs and hoping it will halt desertification, this is also about bringing stable revenue sources and employment opportunities to regions affected by the phenomenon.
“We need to create resilient economies as well as resilient environments,” says Bozzano.
The UN believes that if counter-desertification projects are to succeed, they must sustain the lives of those nearby; planting vegetation that’s worth more standing than felled is vital, as is educating farmers about agro-forestry.
However, although desertification is a problem that the continent needs to address together, one size will not fit all. Multiple solutions may be required in one country, depending on the topography and soil.
Take Kenya, for example, which has three topographical zones; the highlands, the valleys and the escarpment. What works in the highlands may not succeed in the escarpment, so each region must be treated on an individual basis and that requires lengthy assessments, local consultation and drawing up an action plan.
That said, the indigenous acacia tree is proving an early economic success in drylands across Africa. Not only is the species drought-resistant but it is also rich in a substance called gum arabic, which is used as an additive in many products, ranging from soft drinks to pharmaceuticals. Demand for this gum is currently outstripping supply, thanks to an increase in its use in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Consequently, prices are going up and these trees are becoming more valuable standing than they are felled.
That alone won’t safeguard their future, so other revenue streams are being explored by the UN and its partners. Farming, although one of the main causes of desertification, could actually be a solution if it is done sustainably, and the UN is currently engaging farmers in educational programmes to help them understand agro-forestry and the role that trees play in a sustainable agricultural business.
“The difference between having a stable environment or not is the difference between being able to grow crops and crops failing,” explains Berrahmouni. “You need trees because they provide shade, which means the ground loses less water to evaporation.”
Africa’s predominately warm and dry climate may exacerbate desertification and drought, but its environment could also be a blessing as well as a curse. At least that’s according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which convened in Abu Dhabi over the summer to discuss the prospects for a Clean Energy Corridor (CEC) to help lift Africa out of energy poverty.
More than 60 executives from various ministries, electric utilities companies and regional commissions met in June for the workshop in the UAE to discuss how renewable energy could be used across the continent.
“An Africa Clean Energy Corridor could help unlock the continent’s vast renewable energy potential, which is capable of powering Africa to prosperity,” says Adnan Z. Amin, Director-General of the Abu Dhabi-based organisation.
“IRENA has convened leading stakeholders from within the region and across the world to discuss the most effective strategies for bringing this ambitious Clean Energy Corridor into being.”
Plans for a Clean Energy Corridor are still very much at the consultation stage, but Amin is optimistic that green technology, such as solar, could help take pressure off Africa’s natural resources, alleviate poverty and create employment.
“It would also promote the uptake of sustainable technologies to ensure the continent’s long term development, while offering business opportunities for local businesses in Africa,” says Amin.
With the help of Japan, Kenya is already investing in green technologies and hopes it will have five gigawatts of geothermal capacity by 2020 (it currently has approximately 200 megawatts). However, that lofty target became much more achievable in July, when the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) pledged $18million to help Kenya reach its goal.
The role of tourism
According to a feasibility report released by the UN this summer, ecotourism could also help Africa deal with desertification. Burkina Faso, Niger and Ethiopia are currently developing successful ecotourism projects in what remains of their forests and the UN believes that sustainable expansion of Kenya’s tourist industry could provide more revenue and help take the pressure off its fragile land.
The World Bank agrees and claims ecotourism could play a significant role in counter-desertification projects such as the Great Green Wall.
“One of the main objectives of the Green Wall is to improve the livelihoods of people living along it, and I think that ecotourism could definitely help do that,” says Paola Agostini, Senior Environment Economist for the World Bank.
Indeed, tourism is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries and the World Bank believes there is an opportunity to capitalise on the burgeoning appetite for adventure travel and develop a tourism industry in the most remote regions.
As desertification emerges as one of the biggest environmental, social and economic threats facing the planet, the UN and other organisations claim that business as usual is no longer an option.
“Fertile soil is our most valuable non-renewable resource; it lays the foundation for life, feeding the billions populating our planet,” says Walter Ammann, President of the Global Risk Forum.
“Nevertheless, each year an area three times the size of Switzerland is lost for good due to desertification. We need to move from thought to action.”
Mercifully, Africa is seeing action – green energy projects, education in agro-forestry and programmes like the Great Green Wall are all offering hope. However, faced with a growing population and a warming climate, we will need to see a lot more innovations like these in the coming years.
“Land degradation and drought are not fates,” says Gnacadja. “Innovative and inspiring solutions exist that we can [use to] scale-up and scale out.”