Large parts of Africa have been impacted by deserts that crawl further south, year after year. In an effort to stop this desertification, eleven countries are planting a wall of trees from east to west across Africa. This ‘Great Green Wall’, just under the southern edge of the Sahara desert, has been growing slowly. Although some fear that it will not be finished before the deadline of 2030 – or ever – the results are promising.
Desertification is creeping across the Sahel, in the northern and mid part of Africa. Here, rainfall is low, from four to 24 inches per year, and droughts are frequent. The desert has dried up wells and made land unfit to grow crops on. The population, one of the poorest in the world, has a very limited outlook on a better life, and food security is an urgent concern, driving away millions away from their homes. The UN estimates that 60 million Africans, mostly men, will migrate to escape the effects of desertification.
The original idea when the project was launched in 2007 – to literally build a green wall – evolved into a much more holistic program of development, once partners realised it would be necessary to focus on restoring degraded land where communities needed it most. With funding from organisations such as the World Bank, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the European Commission and the government of France, the project to build a barrier of plants and trees to stop the desert, started in 2007. It is by all standards a huge enterprise, costing € 8 billion in total. The goal of the African-led initiative – the African Union acts as the supervisor – is to bring the dry lands back to life and to combat migration by providing sustainable livelihoods for people.
Putting back plants and trees
The concept of Great Green Wall is fairly simple. Without trees, the winds digs up and erodes the soil. Putting back plants and trees in dry areas will help protect the soil, as the tree roots hold water. The leaves provide compost and the canopy increases the humidity of the environment. It also offers shade. As a result of that, there is less need for watering.
By doing this in a large scale, the desert will be contained and pushed back. The green barrier is to become 10 miles wide and 4,350 miles long, bisecting several countries from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. Once completed, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living structure on Earth. 21 countries now have projects within the framework of the initiative: Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Libya, Mali, Mauretania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Tunisia.
Millions of trees planted
To date, 15% of trees for the Wall have been planted since the start in 2007. Figures provided by local governments indicate that, in Senegal 12 million drought-resistant trees have been planted in this country alone, restoring 4 million hectares of land. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger local communities have been planting vegetation that can be used in food or as medicine. In Ethiopia, recently planted indigenous trees and shrubs and commercial forests cover 15 million hectares. Nigerians have planted a further 5 million hectares, directly improving food security for 2.5 million people. Although not all figures are reliable, reports say that in Sudan, 2,000 hectares of land have been restored by planting trees and plants.
Project evolved and matured
According to the spokesman of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, Alexander Asen, the project has evolved and matured in the past ten years. “Initially, the idea was to plant a literal wall of trees and plants. However, this vision has since changed in accordance with locally-driven needs. The Great Green Wall is now a holistic development programme responding to urgent local needs on the ground in the face of rapid environmental degradation and its social and political fallout.”
Vegetation that is grown along the Wall is based on the economical or nutritional value of trees and plants to the communities. Alexander Asen: “We see moringa trees, shea trees, ballanites and jojoba all springing up along the Wall - trees that play a role in local diets or deliver ingredients that are becoming increasingly lucrative for small-holder farmers to trade in local and international markets.”
Communities have benefitted
The Great Green Wall is still years from completion. Some expect the wall never to be finished, at least not before 2030. One thing is sure, Alexander Asen insists: local communities in the more successful areas have benefited, as the project has created jobs for many. The project has improved food security for 20 million Africans and helped African farmers implement climate-resistant farming techniques. On a local scale, a positive effect is that formerly dry wells have filled up again.
Some say the work is not progressing fast enough. Other point at local success rates in several countries. Alexander Asen: “What is important: local people from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East are fighting back desertification. Since the birth of the initiative in 2007, life has started coming back to the land, bringing greater food security, jobs and stability to people’s lives. More than growing trees and plants, the Great Green Wall is transforming the lives of millions of people in the Sahel region.”
Photo credits: UN Convention to Combat Desertification/The Great Green Wall