Coherent pan-African programme wanted to fight desertification

By Francis Nienge, Climate Reality Leader

22 September 2017

Desertification, which the United Nations have declared to be one of the most important challenges of this century, is a global climatic phenomenon that affects all continents: Africa, the Middle-East, the United States, Central Australia and even Europe. Yet Africa is the most affected.

The continent is home to the second largest forested area in the world after the Amazon: the Congo Basin, which is vital for mitigation. Due to numerous factors, this forest is threatened by the Kalahari Desert in the South and the Sahara Desert in the North both advancing towards it every day. Desertification has been a process going on for a long time in the Sahara. It is very advanced around the basin of Lake Chad and is outstanding along the Sahelian strip, a semi-arid region prone to desertification, just like the Kalahari Desert. Unless large-scale reforestation programmes are undertaken, we will continue to lose wooded areas.

This is why planting trees is key to stopping desert encroachment. It helps create the moisture necessary for the evapotranspiration that drives future precipitations, thus resuming the natural cycle of water. Very good results have been obtained in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and China, but also in India.

Carbon sink management is vital for humanity. The Amazon and the Congo Basins, the world’s two largest forested areas, usually come to mind as the single biggest carbon sinks on the planet today. The Amazon Basin is already receiving considerable attention from the international community; many projects and funds are directed towards preventing deforestation in this area for mitigation purposes. We need to focus on the second, but no less important, forest basin and carbon sink of the planet: the Congo basin, the management of which faces two main threats:

A climatic threat. The Congo basin is surrounded by two deserts: the Sahara to the North and the Kalahari to the South. Currents traveling the globe from temperate regions and from southern regions lose their moisture when they reach this area and they carry fine sands from the Zambezi/Kalahari, the Sahara and the Namib deserts and the Sahel region. While desert encroachment begun centuries ago, global warming is exacerbating this process and threatening our continental carbon sink. No programme to combat desertification has had any impact on this phenomenon. Global warming accentuates violent winds that leave the soils bare, which increases evaporation and deprives them of vegetation protection against the sun, adverse weather conditions. Severe and repeated droughts worsen the situation, making the soils unfit for crops, which also offers favourable conditions for desertification. The Sahara is a perfect example of this phenomenon. According to the hieroglyphs, the Nile Basin used to be a verdant forest….

An internal threat. While desert encroachment threatens the Congo Basin’s forests from the outside, internal pressure is exerted as a result of poverty and the quest for survival of the local population.

Some of these causes are to be found in unsustainable cultural practices that cause farmers to constantly move in search for “fresh” land. Slash-and-burn agriculture is still very common in this area. This practice depletes the soils, exacerbates erosion and drives farmers to abandon their land quickly because of insufficient yields. Other factors of forest loss include the harvest of non-timber forest products, which drives some local communities to cut down trees; the use of firewood for lack of other sources of energy; or the hunting for rare game species that contribute to fertilizing the plants.

Large-scale unregulated and uncontrolled logging is another major element of internal pressure on the forests in these areas.

The combination of these factors causes deforestation of large forest areas, a phenomenon that will not stop until we address poverty adequately.

Considering that the African desert regions are extremely poor, it would be advantageous to plant nutraceutical trees or value-added plants rather than simple trees. Apart from mitigation, these plants hold considerable economic potential through the booming market for nutraceuticals, thus contributing to poverty alleviation. Growing them would provide a solution to both financing efforts to curb desert encroachment and improving the quality of life by involving local people.

African leaders, and especially the African Union and other continental bodies, must understand these realities. We are running out of time. In a book I wrote on this topic, I propose concrete solutions such as the project “Give Back Life” which is an ambitious programme to fight climate change, in particular desertification. This would offer a response to the current lack of coherent pan-African programme to address these issues.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the African Climate Reality Project.