By Malachy Ukpong (Former Assistant Director, New, FRCN)
Deserts are arid areas with sparse vegetation or in rare cases, with no vegetation at all. The soils are poor and filled with shifting sands called dunes. According to the United Nations, one hundred nations are being affected by it and up to one third of world’s area will soon become deserts unless urgent steps are taken to address the problem. People in the arid areas are already aware of desert encroachment caused by climate change, unsustainable land use such as over cultivation, over grazing, deforestation and poor irrigation. Out of the twelve largest deserts in the world, two are found in Africa. They are the Sahara desert and the Kalahari Desert.
It is estimated that the areas of these two deserts in Africa constitute more than a half of the total of all the twelve desert areas of the world. The effects of these deserts on farmlands in Africa are devastating. Past efforts by African leaders to check desert encroachment on the continent led to the introduction of the Green Belt Initiative to ensure the re-afforestation of the three million hectares of land in Africa. In 1978, the initiative was renamed the Shelter Belt of Northern African countries.
Nigeria, on part her part, pursued the Green Belt initiative by embarking on the planting of about 300 million trees in 240 thousand hectares of land. Due to the minimal outcomes recorded by these initiatives, African leaders, at the 5th Ordinary Summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, adopted a motion moved by Nigeria, for the establishment of another desert control program, known as the Green Wall Project for the Sahara Desert. Under the Program, a Wall of trees was to be constructed, stretching from Mauritania in the North- west to Djibouti at the Horn of Africa, to halt the southward advancement of the Sahara Desert.
It is however unfortunate that today, Africa is still losing vast arable land to desert encroachment due the poor implementation of the various projects. The Sahara Desert is encroaching everyday into the Savannas and farmlands of sub- Saharan Africa. African Leaders must muster enough political will for the successful implementation of desert control programs. They must put in place multi-sector responses and intervention measures, such as conservation and recovery of existing vegetation, promotion of alternative sources of energy to reduce direct dependence on bio-mass for domestic energy.
The age long traditional practice of tree felling for fire wood negates the policy of tree planting adopted by most African countries. The Green Wall Project also involves proper water resources management and sustainable activities for mass food production. It is true that the size of the area to be greened under the project is itself a challenge, considering population dynamics in the Sahel- Sahara region. However, this could be overcome through exchange of experiences and greater co-operation among African Leaders.
For instance, the Green Wall Program may require the transfer of water from water rich countries to countries with no water which needs the understanding and the political will of the leaders involved to implement. Africa must not continue to lose her land mass to desert encroachment. Most African countries are facing serious hunger and famine today as a result of the devastating effects of drought which desertification has brought on their farmlands. The time has come for African leaders to take drastic measures to enhance capacity building for land degradation and desertification control in Africa.