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Published On: Tue, Oct 28th, 2014

Can Africa halt desertification in the face of hunger?

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By Ese Awhotu

The European Union (EU) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in collaboration with the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) have launched a €41 million, 4.5-year programme to bolster sustainable land management and restore dry lands and degraded lands in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

The programme, named Action Against Desertification, is crucial in fighting hunger and poverty, fostering stability and building resilience to climate change in some of the world’s most vulnerable areas, the programme sponsors say.

Action Against Desertification is designed to support local communities, government and civil society in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Niger and Senegal in the sustainable management and restoration of their dry land forests and rangelands.

It will support agro-forestry and promote income-generation activities, as well as the creation of employment opportunities in rural areas, especially for youth and women, based on the sustainable production, processing and marketing of agricultural products and forest goods and services.

According to the FAO, farmer field schools and knowledge exchanges will allow farmers to learn about the causes of desertification and the best ways to combat and prevent it.

Although located on the other side of the globe, both the Caribbean and the Pacific face similar challenges as Africa. Unsustainable land management practices have caused soil loss, degraded natural habitats, contributed to the loss of biodiversity and reduced natural buffers to droughts and floods.

More than 70 percent of people living in dry lands and other fragile ecosystems across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific derive their livelihoods from natural resources. But population growth and climate change put increasing pressure on these ecosystems, exacerbating degradation and desertification of increasingly overexploited lands.

“Desertification and land degradation are very serious challenges. They lead to hunger and poverty, themselves at the root of many conflicts,” said José Graziano da Silva, FAO’s Director-General about the need for the programme. “But recent successes show that these problems are not insurmountable. We can boost food security, improve livelihoods and help people adapt to climate change.”

The EU’s Development Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs said: “Sustainable land management is crucial to tackling the triple challenges we face from climate change, loss of biodiversity and food insecurity. This new programme will help those communities most affected by these problems to better manage their resources, use them to create jobs and generate income and invest in them for future generations.”

“Hunger and poverty, climate change, deforestation, land degradation, desertification and the loss of biodiversity are all interlinked,” underlined Alhaji Muhammad Mumuni, Secretary General of the ACP. “Integrated approaches to landscape management are necessary, as well as new policies, investments and capacities to address these challenges in ACP countries.”

In Africa, the programme’s efforts build on the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative, established in 2007, which has become Africa’s flagship initiative to combat the effects of climate change and desertification.

“Action Against Desertification will also extend to Haiti in the Caribbean and Fiji in the Pacific, and be an example of increasing South-South cooperation by building on lessons learned from Africa’s Great Green Wall Initiative to help local communities adopt improved sustainable land- and forest-management practices, while enhancing capacities of governmental and non-governmental organizations to support these efforts.” FAO said

Action Against Desertification is a joint FAO and ACP-EU programme, whose funding includes €20 million from the European Development Fund.

It is implemented by FAO in partnership with the African Union Commission, the governments of the concerned countries, the ACP Secretariat, the Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew and the Walloon Region of Belgium, as well as other partners.

Desertification is a serious problem in the continent. It has been estimated that 319 million hectares of Africa are vulnerable to desertification hazards due to sand movement. FAO/UNEP assessments of land degradation in Africa suggest that large areas of countries north of the equator suffer from serious desertification problems. For example, the desert is said to be moving at an annual rate of 5 km in the semi-arid areas of West Africa. Painfully, little reliable data is available on the extent of land degradation in Africa.

However, anyone who has travelled through the continent can observe that land degradation is widespread and serious.

The presence of gullies and sand dunes, of degraded forests and grazing lands are obvious, although the effects of sheet erosion and declining soil fertility are less noticeable.

The wealth of Africa depends on her ability to convene her land resources. It is a well-known fact that soil degradation not only results in decreased food production but also in droughts, ecological imbalance and consequent degradation of the quality of life.

In Africa, the most conspicuous symptoms of the negative impact of land degradation on food production are stagnating and declining yields and increasing levels of poverty.

Throughout the continent, regardless of the climatic zone, meteorological records show that unpredictability of rains is a common feature. In the Sahel, variations in total annual rainfall can be up to 30 or 40 per cent. Even, the humid and sub-humid zones are subject to rainfall fluctuations of 15 to 20 per cent. In most cases, the rainfall is rarely gentle and even. It usually comes as torrential downpours, which are destructive to soils and harmful to plants. Many

African countries have already lost a significant quantity of their soils to various forms of degradation. Many areas in the continent are said to be losing over 50 tones of soil per hectares per year. This is roughly equivalent to a loss of about 20 billion tones of Nitrogen, 2 billion tones of Phosphates and 41 billion tones of potassium per year.

Serious erosion areas in the continent can be found in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Ghana, Zaire, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, the Sudan and Somalia.

Nomadic herders, grazing animals on arid and semi-arid lands, are particularly vulnerable to drought, since it depletes their most precious assets: their livestock herds.

The Northern part of Nigeria especially the frontline states comprising of Bauchi/ Gombe, Borno, Yobe, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto/Zamfara and Kebbi which lie roughly North of latitude 120N face serious threats of desertification occasioned by over exposure of the fragile environment mostly through improper farming techniques, overgrazing by livestock, occurrence of frequent fires and drought, high rate of fuel wood extraction especially by communities near to forest reserves due to high costs of alternative sources of domestic energy such as kerosene, gas and electricity.

Immediate past Minister of Environment, Mrs. Hadiza Ibrahim Mailafia disclosed that 43.3 per cent of the total land area of the country is prone to desertification hence, there is need to protect the resource based ecosystem.

According to her, “40 million Nigerians were affected by desertification each year, and this poses serious threats to livelihoods of the citizens. Recent report indicates that 43.3 per cent of the total land area of the country is prone to desertification, with the frontline states facing the greatest hazards. “The problem is quite alarming and can cripple provision of land resources based ecosystem services that are vital for a number of development sectors.

“The effects of drought are being exacerbated by desertification and the threat of the Sahara desert spreading southwards is considered a major challenge that no single country can tackle it alone.” She said

” In order to ensure an effective implementation of the Great Green Wall Program in our country, a national strategic action plan has been developed, and work plan have been approved for implementation”, Mailafia added

Government and some non-governmental agencies have proffered various suggestions aimed at stemming the menace of desertification but these are yet to yield results. An EU and FAO action is therefore most welcome.


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