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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Ethiopia Improved Cookstove Project: Stories from the Field

Meet Mahlet Gebrie .

Mahlet (28) lives with her husband and three young children (aged 3-9) in Birbir town in Mirab Abaya woredas. She is amongst the many unemployed high school graduates in the area. The only income earned is by her husband from hard daily labor, roughly 30 ETB/day (approx. 82p), which is insufficient to cover the basic necessities for the family, including food, clothing, medication, school fees and equipment.

In 2017 co2balance with Vita (an Irish NGO working on the ground in Ethiopia) launched an improved cookstove carbon-offset project in Mirab Abaya and Chencha woredas.

As well as displacing carbon emissions, our projects also support the local economy and empower women in the project country, tackling key developmental hindrances. As such, the project provided technical training to two local women’s enterprise groups, teaching them how to construct improved cookstoves. The project also provided financial and management training, teaching the women well-rounded, transferable skills. Following training and support, their production capacity increased from 10 to 40 stoves a day.

The Bemenet Mirt Improved Cookstove Producing Enterprise during production.

One of the enterprises is ‘Bemenet Mirt Improved Cookstove Producing Enterprise’ that comprises of 10 previously unemployed women. Overall, the enterprise has supplied over 2000 improved cookstoves on a subsidised system. With a rate of 180 ETB percook stove (approx. £4.80), the enterprise has earned a gross income of 360,000 ETB (approx. £9770.00). Mahlet has been elected as the chair of this enterprise, managing the women and finances. Mahlet and the other women members share the dividend monthly, earning a monthly income.

The project has changed Mahlet and her family’s lives, providing a secure job, training and income. Outside of her duty in the enterprise, she has progressed with her education, and has graduated with a diploma in business administration. The additional income has allowed her family to build a new, beautiful house, which they have wanted to do for a long time. Mahlet and her husband are now leading a successful life, able to afford food, medication when needed, clothes and school uniforms and equipment for her children.

Mahlet and the Enterprise are now planning for the future and aim to purchase a vehicle to offer cookstove distribution services, as well as exploring the possibility of expanding the enterprises’ activities to include the production of bricks for the construction of buildings in the local community.    

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2016 the UN launched SDGs, a set of 17 measurable goals which together form a global call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

The project contributes to many of the SDGs, in particular:

Our improved cookstove projects have a range of positive impacts, not only to the project beneficiaries who receive the stoves, but to women who, through support from the project, produce the cookstoves for distribution.

Ethiopia Safe Water Project: Stories from the Field

Meet Abebech Asrat. 

Abebech lives in Dorze Kebele, in the Chencha region of Ethiopia. She is 36, and married with four children, two of which are very young. She is a user of the Dorze Borehole which was repaired and since maintained by co2balance in 2017 in partnership with NGO Vita.

“Before the project my children and I had to spend 2-3 hours a day collecting water from the Shayne River, the only water source nearby as our local borehole was broken. To make the river water safe for my family we had to spend up to 6 hours collecting firewood, 3-4 days per week to purify the water. Villagers often had bad diarrhea and other diseases from drinking unsafe water from the Shayne River. To get better people had to spend many hours waiting in health facilities and buy medication using up a lot of their money”.

“The borehole project has really changed my life in amazing ways”.

“The Dorze Borehole was broken for three years before co2balance repaired and began maintaining it in 2017. It has now been verified as safe drinking water from water quality testing. The project has helped me and the local community greatly”.

“I am one of the WASHCO committee members of this borehole and have gained key skills from training in water point administration, water hygiene, sanitation activities and women self-help income generating activities”.

“I have been empowered through the training I have received from the Borehole Project. I collect and deposit small fees from community members partaking in the borehole scheme. We each pay 1 Ethiopian Birr for 40 litres into a community fund and save this money for if we need to repair the Borehole”.

“Before the project my whole family, in particular my children, would get sick almost every month with diseases from drinking unsafe water, sometimes near death with severe diarrhea, costing us 420 Birr per month buying medicine. From the project, we have saved 4800 Birr per year which would have been spent buying medication to save my family. Now we spend only 495 Birr per year and save a lot more money. My children are now able to attend school for longer due to having a closer water source and no further need to collect wood for water purification”.

“The project also connected me with the Kebele Omo Microfinance Institute, and I am now able to borrow money to help me create a sustainable livelihood. I was able to borrow 2000 Birr to start poultry rearing for additional income. I earn 30 Birr per pay, resulting in more than 10,000 Birr per year from selling eggs. My husband now makes traditional Clothes and gets 800 Birr per week, about 40,000 Birr per year”.

The saving account of the WASHCO, Abebech’s husband making Cloth and the chickens she is rearing.

“The Borehole project has transformed my family life, we have better living conditions than ever before. My family is healthy and strong, we now drink pure water and eat a balanced diet. We now have additional income from selling eggs and chickens. With the extra income we have moved from our small hut to a more modern house with corrugated iron sheet cover. We can also afford the school materials such as exercise books, pencils and uniforms”.

Now other women in the village are eager to participate in the WASHCO committee to empower and educate themselves, access safe, accessible water for their families and put them in the position to access microfinance to help them access income generating activities to support themselves and their families.

In 2016, the UN launched their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 measurable goals which together form a global call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. The project contributes to many of the SDGs, in particular Goals 3, 5, 6 and 13, proactively tackling women empowerment, good health and well-being, access clean water in the poorest communities trapped in poverty and offset climate emissions.