Monday, February 22, 2010

Environment: 'Great Green Wall' running through 11 countries, will halt the spread of the Sahara

By Jerome Mwanda
Republished kind permission of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

A gigantic wall stretching over thousands of kilometres is being erected in Africa, which has no parallels in human history except the Green Wall of China designed to hold back the Gobi desert.

The African fence -- named the 'Great Green Wall', which will run through 11 countries -- is purported to halt the southward advance of the Sahara. And it will be much more than a wall of trees stretching from Senegal to Djibouti.

This initiative, linked to sustainable development, is seen by its supporters to manifest a strong political will to conduct in well delineated regions of the Sahel-Saharan countries a set of concerted and coherent interventions with the aim of achieving simultaneously three goals:

- Natural resource conservation, development and management;
- Strengthening infrastructure;
- Improving the living conditions of the resident communities.

The significance of the plan, approved by the 53-nation African Union in 2007, lies in the fact that the threat posed by desertification is particularly acute in Africa.

Africa is one of the continents worst affected by the processes and impacts of land degradation and the deterioration of the communities' living conditions, particularly in the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) area characterised by climate ranging from hyper-arid to dry sub-humid.

Livelihoods in the countries located in this sub-region are heavily dependent on soil, water and vegetation resources, which have become increasingly fragile due to the mounting pressure being exerted on them.

In many central and West African countries surrounding the Sahara, climate change has slowed rainfall to a trickle, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Crops have died and soils have eroded -- crippling local agriculture. If the trend continues, the UN forecasts that two-thirds of Africa's farmland may be swallowed by Saharan sands by 2025.

All 11 countries that would house the Great Green Wall have pledged to help fund the project. But the wall has been slow to break ground: Of the 7,000 kilometres (4,350 miles) it is planned to cover, only about 525 kilometres (326 miles) have been planted so far, all within Senegal.


At the Copenhagen UN climate change summit in December 2009, Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade stressed that he has made the Great Green Wall a priority, and already asked scientists working on the project to choose species hardy enough to survive in arid conditions without maintenance.

"One thing the president has insisted is … we have to begin the work now, right now," added Ndiawar Djeng, advisor to the Senegalese environment minister. "If other international committees follow us, that's OK. If not, we have to do what we have to do," Djeng told National Geographic News. "It's in the interest of our local people," he added.

The green channel through the desert, which is 15-kilometer-wide (9.3-mile-wide), would help farmers already displaced by drought -- and may even stem the exodus of "environmental refugees", according to African officials. More than 70 percent of Africa's poor depends on farming, according to the IPCC.

But drought, desertification, and other climate-related disasters are forcing many farmers to abandon their lands, spurring a heavier flow of immigrants out of central and North Africa. The wall of trees would improve the surrounding, now-degraded soils, allowing farmers to again grow crops and more easily raise livestock in the region.

Senegal also plans to dig rainwater reservoirs along its portion of the wall -- virtual lifesavers in a region where rain falls only three months out of the year. "France is helping us by bringing its soldiers, who are working with us planting trees and building reservoirs," President Wade told reporters in Copenhagen.

The gigantic tree barrier would also trap some atmospheric carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, and produce a refuge for native animals and plants. Some of the trees themselves may become valuable crops, according to National Geographic News.

The native acacia senegal tree, which is to be a staple plant in the Great Green Wall, produces gum arabic, a main ingredient in consumer products such as cosmetics and soft drinks. Farmers could collect the sap and even sustainably harvest some of the wood to make tools or produce charcoal, Senegalese environment advisor Djeng said.


However, enthusiasm about the Great Green Wall of Africa is not shared by all and sundry. "Although this is still just a plan looking for funders, the way in which it has been handled to date gives an insight into the difficulty Africa has in implementing," says Dave Harcourt.

He is highly critical of the fact that the Summit of Leaders and Heads of States of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, held in June 2005 in Ougadougou (Burkina Faso), adopted the “Great Green Wall initiative as one of its priority programmes”.

"Just these few phrases illustrate shortcoming often seen in Africa. Calling it an initiative and a priority programme distract from the need to do things as one would in a project or a task," says Harcourt in an article posted on on January 8, 2010.

Writes Harcourt: The Sahara and Sahel Observatory (SSO) was “tasked with developing the concept” with a focus on implementation and its sustainable development impact. The report on what became the The Great Green Wall Initiative of the Sahara and the Sahel (GGWISS) was published in 2008 and claims to “summarise the results obtained from available documentation and consultations with key experts and practitioners. It draws lessons from past experiences while considering current development needs.”

The report clearly tried to collect some of the many desertification projects that governments and donors had invested in over the decades and work these into a green belt which would combine them to form the basis of a Great Green Wall.

Then the AU and the EU became involved, which lead to a report in June 2009 which recommended “cross-sectoral actions aimed at the sustainable land- and natural resource management” and the investigation of “possible avenues for implementation, including on institutional and funding mechanisms, inter alia, to complement FAO’s contribution for the project”.

It was on the basis of this report that President Wade presented the project at Copenhagen. However his presentation and the title of the project lead to press reports that still refer to the physical planting of trees as the projects focus. "So the actual nature of the initiative is not correctly communicated which could lead to problems during implementation," warns Harcourt.

He is of the view that the various objectives added to the project including carbon mitigation, poverty alleviation, sustainable land management, improved farming practices and natural resource management all lead to increasing complexity and a loss of focus.

Besides: "The final plan defines a two year planning period before the actual work can be launched at initiation workshops. All this effects those trying to implement the project as well as the funders and has lead to the situation where, five years on, funding has not yet been been sourced."

The 'Global Mechanism' (GM) however points out that the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI) has evolved from a tree planting initiative to the promotion of sustainable land management (SLM) practices, as a more ecologically appropriate and holistic approach to benefit local land users.

The GM provides advisory services to the country parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), to upscale finance for Sustainable Land Management (SLM).

An introductory document published by the Sahara and Sahel Observatory points out: "The Great Green Wall Initiative saw the light of day when efforts made in the implementation of the Convention to Combat Desertification proved well below the objectives sought, both in terms of natural resource conservation and poverty alleviation. This made it essential to consolidate, accelerate and strengthen the National Action Programmes to Combat Desertification." (IDN-InDepthNews/20.02.2010)

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