Posted on April 01 2021
Climate change is a huge problem. It’s as big as the whole world, and any meaningful proposal to combat it will take a coordination of efforts over broad landscapes and multiple countries. So far, this kind of cooperation and action has been pretty limited, but one project has been progressing since it was first conceived in the 1980s and finally begun in 2007, starting with an effort by 11 countries. The area involved isn’t just a river valley or a mountain range, but the width of an entire continent—Africa. And not the narrow part.
The Sahel region of Africa, a swath from Senegal to Eritrea. The Great Green Wall would cross 11 countries in the Sahel, with a total of 20 African countries supporting the effort.
Africa’s Sahara Desert is the biggest hot desert in the world. It covers most of North Africa with arid sand. Precipitation and vegetation increase to the south of it, eventually reaching the rainforests of Central Africa. The transition zone between the barren desert and the regions of lush growth is the Sahel, a swath of grassland, scrub, and scattered trees that runs from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, from Senegal to Eritrea. Nearly 2,400 miles across, and from a few hundred to over 600 miles wide, the Sahel covers over 1.15 million square miles. It is a semi-desert, but has long supported millions of people, their farms, and animals. It stands as something of a buffer against the Sahara.
The Sahel is changing, however, and the Sahara is encroaching. A process called desertification sees formerly productive lands turned to the arid and barren landscape typical of desert lands. The case of the Sahel may be more a matter of the collapse of the grassland than the invasion of the Sahara. Many factors have led to the degradation of the Sahel, including not only the planet-wide effects of climate change, but poor soil management, and the overcutting of timber for firewood and livestock feed. Trees, though scattered, once were much more numerous. Their loss is part of a suite of pressures on productivity. As human population rises in the Sahel at very rapid rates, farming has become more intense, overtaxing the soil. The loss of trees affects rainfall volumes already disrupted by less reliable weather patterns, which result in the land being buffeted by extremes. Drought has long been the bane of farmers, but unpredictable heavy rains also cause significant crop damage as well as flooding. The Sahel, beset with climate challenges, is a vital region for not only today’s population, but for double their number and more, a human explosion that is predicted in coming decades.
Though it has never been a region of lush vegetation, in recent decades the Sahel has suffered from overgrazing, drought, bad water management, too much wood collection, climate change, and a variety of political problems.
Forward thinkers in 2007 could see that a revitalized Sahel was crucial to Africa’s future, and they devised a staggeringly ambitious plan they called the Great Green Wall. Its goal was to plant a 10-mile-wide barrier of trees in a sinuous path stretching for 4,350 miles across Africa from coast to coast. Envisioned as a way to stop the march of the Sahara southward, it aimed to re-green 50 million hectares of land, sequester 250 million tons of CO2, and solve a host of social problems in the impoverished region. The plan had a number of problems, ranging from a lack of funding and inadequate manpower for planting and caring for the young trees, to questions of whether such a garden could actually stop the decline of the Sahel.
A dozen years and a great deal of work later, the results are simultaneously encouraging, frustrating, and inconclusive. There are, in places, impressive stands of trees that have helped renew the productivity of the grassland, but they have resulted more from new methods of land conservation, and new laws regarding trees. Where once colonial government sought to preserve trees by making their felling a crime, landowners are now taught that the trees are most valuable as water-retainers and shade-makers which can encourage the growth of grass and other forage for livestock. Land with a cover of vegetation is resistant to the Dust Bowl kind of devastation that was stripping the topsoil away. Instead of stealthy wood-cutting that made criminals of tree owners, people realized their future was dependent upon tree preservation. Even more than planting new saplings, the nurturing of old, heavily harvested but still-living stumps brought back stands of trees. Other methods of farming that encouraged the wise use of scarce rainwater by adaptive planting methods and impeding runoff helped keep moisture in the ground. The increased water leads to food security and means women and girls do not have to spend hours a day carrying water from distant sources. More jobs, sustainable jobs, less poverty, and more stability give hope to a very stressed part of the world.
The hope is that struggling trees can be nurtured into a more verdant belt.
Some parts of Burkina Faso have shown improvement, giving propontents of the Great Green Wall hope.
If more of the belt could look like this bit of the Sahel in a fortunate part of Mali, greater water retention and improved farming could mean productivity and peace for a wide swath of Africa.
While certain areas in places such as Niger and Burkina Faso have made stunning progress in the fight to keep the Sahel from transforming into more of the Sahara, many other parts of the “wall” are still failing. Besides the challenges of natural system decline, there is also the political unrest in places like Mali that make almost any economic activity impossible, let alone the stability-dependent practice of farming. Dispirited farmers and herdspeople in many places give up on the struggle with the weather and human conflict and head for cities or to other countries to find a better life. Climate scientists predict the temperatures in the Sahel will increase more than in most places, so the challenges will likely become even greater. The Great Green Wall movement has been a catalyst for widespread realization that the Sahel must be rehabilitated in order to avert the worst of catastrophes. Its areas of success need to be emulated by farmers across the region. The “wall” may end up as a discontinuous series of reclaimed patches rather than an endless forest of newly planted trees, but the farther the Great Green Wall’s message of wise land use practices stretches, the more it will improve lives.
Get a feel for Africa’s landscape, including the Sahel, where the Great Green Wall is slowly growing. This National Geographic wall map of the continent might even inspire you to go and plant a tree! Available from Maps.com.
caption: The Sahel region of Africa, a swath from Senegal to Eritrea. The Great Green Wall would cross 11 countries in the Sahel, with a total of 20 African countries supporting the effort.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Munion (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: Though it has never been a region of lush vegetation, in recent decades the Sahel has suffered from overgrazing, drought, bad water management, too much wood collection, climate change, and a variety of political problems.
source: Flickr: Ammar Hassan (CC by 2.0)
caption: The hope is that struggling trees can be nurtured into a more verdant belt.
source: Pixabay: bory67 (Pixabay license)
caption: Some parts of Burkina Faso have shown improvement, giving propontents of the Great Green Wall hope.
source: Flickr: Adam Jones (CC by SA 2.0)
caption: If more of the belt could look like this bit of the Sahel in a fortunate part of Mali, greater water retention and improved farming could mean productivity and peace for a wide swath of Africa.
source: Wikimedia Commons: NOAA, U.S. Government, photographer not known (Public domain)