Turning the tide in Africa’s 5000-year fight against desertification

Did you know that the Sahara Desert used to be green?

The vast expanse of dusty desert and blistering sand was, 9000 years ago, a lush green savannah. This period was known as the ‘Neolithic Subpluvial’, a time of mega-lakes surrounded by grasslands and wildebeest and early human settlements[1].

Then, about 5000 years ago, the rains stopped. The climate shifted and the sands rolled in. And it didn’t stop there. Ever since that time the people of the Sahel have been fighting an endless fight to save their crops and land and livelihoods against the ever-encroaching sand. In short, the fight against desertification.

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Artist’s impression of the Neolithic Subpluvial, or ‘Green Sahara’, circa 9000 years ago (Source: http://www.deviantart.com/9weegee).

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Satellite photo of the Sahara today (Source: http://www.nasa.gov)

 

UNEP has estimated that 35% of the earth’s land surface is under threat from desertification. That’s an area the size of North and South America combined. And threatening 850 million people. Every year, some 21 million hectares are reduced to a state of near or complete uselessness – exacerbated by human activity and deforestation[2].

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Desertification vulnerability in Africa (Source: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov)

We at CO2balance have unfortunately witnessed this firsthand. In previous posts on this blog, Project Coordinator Moses has shared his experiences of deforestation in Africa. In Kenya he says, without forests the country would be little more than a desert.

Nowhere is this more apparent than along the edge of the Sahara. Since 1920 the desert has expanded by about 10% – 800,000 km² of agricultural land swallowed up by the desert, forcing millions to migrate[3]. If nothing is done, this will only get worse.

Thankfully, we ARE doing something – communities and organisations are taking big strides to combat this threat. Dozens of programmes have sprung up; from local-scale “Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration” (in which rural farmers lead the fight), to national action programmes like Kenyan Minister of Environment Judy Wakhungu’s plan to reforest the country, to (a personal favourite) the plan for the ‘Great Green Wall of Africa’ – the seemingly outlandish plan to grow an 8,000km-long line of trees, 48km deep, across the entire Saharan border, from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to the Red Sea coast of Djibouti as a monumental ‘natural’ defence. Sounds incredible (as in, not-credible), but it was launched by the UNCCD and African Union and planting has already begun – in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger and Ethiopia. As of March 2019, 15% of the wall has been completed[4]. (I would go on about this further but frankly it deserves a blog all by itself! For now, go check it out: https://www.greatgreenwall.org/).

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The Great Green Wall of Africa (highlighted in yellow) and the plan to stop the Sahara in its tracks (Source: http://www.nationalgeographic.org)

 

We at CO2balance are doing what we can to aid this fight. Our projects, whether safe water or clean cookstoves, all have the upshot that they drastically reduce the amount of firewood that rural people are burning in their everyday lives. This drastically cuts levels of deforestation in the area. Without deforestation, shrubs and trees are not felled, which means that the midday sun will not dry and desiccate the soil, nor will organic matter and organisms be lost, thus retaining agricultural productivity, biodiversity, supporting human health and livestock and eco-tourism[1].

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We are proud to say that, since 2013, our projects have helped save over 2.5 million tonnes of wood (about 73km2 of forest) across Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Not to blow our own trumpet too much though. At the end of the day, whilst these are successes, they constitute a drop in the ocean of sand that is desertification. Real, large scale change requires international cooperation and mass public awareness.

In 17th June 1994, the UN launched the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), to meet this challenge. Today, 25 years on, we celebrate the Silver Anniversary of the “World Day to Combat Desertification” (#2019WDCD), celebrating all that we’ve achieved, but recognising how much further we have to go.

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The theme of this Silver Anniversary celebration: “Let’s Grow the Future Together” (Source: http://www.un.org)

The arid and semi-arid lands of Africa, under greatest threat, are home to about 400 million Africans[5]. Their plight will surely intensify with climate change. But, with international action like the ‘Great Green Wall’, and mass small-scale resistances like CO2balance’s projects, we can hope to turn the tide.

For now then, take a look at a few of the special 25th Anniversary projects taking place today and share these stories to raise awareness of the fight against desertification: https://www.unccd.int/actions17-june-world-day-combat-desertification/2019wdcd-events-around-world

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Eritreans have a new name for cookstoves: the ‘Saviour stove’

Desey Tsehaye and her grandson with their brand new ‘Saviour’ cookstove, complete with smoke funnel.

Desey is a 47-year-old grandmother who lives out in the Eritrean desert, south of the capital city Asmara. It is a forbidding landscape of rock and mountain, which has been almost completely deforested.

Desey and her family were forced to buy firewood everyday, simply to cook and feed herself and her family, spending a lot of money in the process. The traditional stove also produced a lot of smoke, causing eye problems and headaches from the fumes.

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Local women helping to construct the stoves.

Then an improved cook stove was installed in her house through Vita and CO2balance’s fuel efficient cook stove project. The stove used much less firewood, saving the women and girls time, money and drudgery collecting firewood.

As such, they have taken to calling it the ‘Saviour stove’ (Adhenet in the Tigrinya local language).

Despite this success however, when Desey was invited to participate in the project she was initially reluctant: When I was invited to have a stove my mother had just died and I told Vita that I was grieving and not in the frame of mind to have this new kind of stove.”

But thankfully she came round: “They offered to construct it for me. Once it was built I really blessed them. Now I see that this stove is a precious item that everyone should have. I’m telling all my friends and neighbours about the benefits of it of this stove.”

Now she has no need to need to buy firewood – twigs and leaves are enough fuel for her improved stove. Her family has saved money, which they spend on a buying a wider variety of food for their family and making improvements to their home. Their former smoke problems are also a thing of the past, as the improved cook stove uses a handy chimney so there is no smoke indoors.

 

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Local women enjoying their training in stove maintenance.

CO2balance and Vita worked closely with the local women’s association in the village to engage women in the project and train them in stove maintenance.

This has proved very successful and helped build grassroots support and interest in the Saviour stoves, ensuring that they remain in good condition and reap the rewards for many years to come.

Introducing myself

Hi everyone,

I’m Oscar, the new Carbon Projects Officer joining the CO2balance team here in sunny Taunton. I’m told this is a tradition, so allow me to introduce myself.

I’ve always loved the natural world, so initially went down the path of science, studying for a Masters in Applied Ecology at Imperial College London. Yet it was here that I discovered the SDGs and their potential for the world, and discovered a newfound passion for international development.

I joined the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN in Rome, where I had the privilege of carbon auditing large-scale agricultural projects in Mozambique and Vietnam.

Seeking the rural life, I then ran off to the mountains of Nepal to live and work in a remote village with a charity for four months, learning the value of small-scale projects to improving people’s lives.

I must say, I’m truly impressed by all that CO2balance has achieved. The fact that the company is growing so rapidly is testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone, the team past and present. So I’m delighted to be joining at this exciting time and be able to contribute to this growth, be it through projects in climate-smart agriculture (my specialism at the FAO) or traversing new lands in Africa and Asia.

Outside of work, I’m usually found rock climbing, surfing, playing tai chi, eating cake or learning something new – I describe myself as a philomath (a lover of learning) and hunter-gatherer of interestingness, so am never far from an interesting book or lecture.

Thank you to everyone for such a warm welcome. I can’t wait to get stuck in.

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Overlooking the historic Patan Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal.