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)

 

The UN Environment Programme 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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Economic Development and Opportunities for Entrepreneurialism Through Safe Water: The Story of Jaspher and Susan in Lango sub region, Uganda

Jaspher Opio is a proud beneficiary of the CO2balance Safe Water project in Lango sub region, Northern Uganda. Jaspher lives in a village called Agengi in Dokolo District. He and his wife Susan have two children and 5 dependents. Susan and the family collect water from Aminalucu Borehole which is 250 meters away from their household.

According to Jaspher, before CO2balance intervention, people around his village used to collect water from very unsafe source. Villagers would spend lot time collecting water and fuel for purification. The main source at that time was an open well which had become a health hazard due to poor water quality. Also, children risked drowning in the well.

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Aminalucu Borehole (for domestic use) in Dokolo District, Uganda

‘I am a proud owner of a nursery tree seedling business which I started two years ago and this has increased my household income from 2,500,000 to 5,000,000 Uganda Shillings per season. I grow different tree species like Malaina, Clone Eucalyptus, Pines, and Ashock’ says Japher.

He adds that the initial investment cost for the nursery bed was 2,470,000 UGX (around £500), which he acquired as a loan from a village savings group.

According to Opio, his nursery bed employs 5 workers: two males and three females who are also water users of Aminalucu borehole.

‘the 3 female employees who work for me also live close to the borehole and say that they are now able to work at the tree seedling nursery because they no longer spend long hours in search of water’ added Japher.

Japher’s wife Susan, together with the adult dependents in their household, also help him at the nursery business which initially was not possible because they spent hours travelling long distances in search of water before the borehole was rehabilitated.

Currently his nursery bed is having 1,700 root stocks capable of raising 30,000 to 40,000 seedling of Eucalyptus trees whose potential average total sales is 24,000,000 UGX per year (around £5,000). Japher intends to invest this income in expanding his boda boda (motor cycle transport) business and also start a free range poultry system which will be managed entirely by his wife.

Susan is so happy with the time saved in collecting water from far off sources because she’s able to use it to support their family businesses and contribute to the household income.

The Lango Safe Water Project reduces CO2 emissions by removing the need for households to boil water as a treatment method. As well as reducing CO2 emissions, the project provides safe drinking water and greatly reduces the time spend collecting water and firewood, and reduces the time spent boiling the water. As shown by the story of Jaspher and Susan, this time can be investing in businesses which benefit the household and the wider community through employment.

‘Sost Gulicha Free’ Communities – Adapting CLTS to cookstoves in Ethiopia

CO2balance are currently supporting the distribution of improved cookstoves throughout the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region in Southern Ethiopia with our partner, Vita

As part of an initiative between Vita and the CLTS Foundation, a pilot project is being implemented in 2 communities in Mirab Abaya and Arba Minch Zuria, focusing on adapting the core principles of the Community-Led Total Sanitation approach to mobilise communities to adopt clean cookstoves.

The target communities are located in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region in Southern Ethiopia.

These principles are drawn from the recognition that merely introducing new technology into communities does not guarantee their use; and that for effective adoption, the community must lead the way on ensuring behavior change.

This pioneering project will explore and identify how this community led approach – which includes identifying triggering factors and developing localised roadmaps –  can be adapted to cookstoves to lead to an outcome where communities are sost gulicha (traditional cookstove) free.

A newly distributed improved cookstove

The project will focus on effective education and awareness raising of the severe health impacts associated from cooking on open, three-stone fires, and detailed training on how to use and maintain the improved cookstoves, hoping to support community-led behavior change and maximise use of the improved cookstoves and the benefits they deliver.

The projects actively contribute to helping achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We specifically target:

SDG3 Good Health and Wellbeing through reducing household pollution and the associated respiratory diseases

SDG 5 Gender Equality through reducing the burden of the domestic task of collecting firewood on women as the improved stoves require less fuel

SDG 7 Affordable and Clean Energy by increasing the distribution of improved technology to rural communities isolated from development

SDG 13 Climate Action by offsetting carbon emissions through the use of improved technology.

World Environment Day – Air Pollution Awareness

Today we are celebrating World Environment Day, an annual event created by the United Nations in 1974 to encourage worldwide awareness and action to protect our environment. Since its creation, the event has grown to become a global movement for public outreach for the need of environmental action. Each World Environment Day has a new theme and is hosted in a different country where the official celebrations take place – this years host is China, with the theme of air pollution.

Summarised from the World Environment Day website, the main source of household air pollution is the indoor burning of fossil fuels and biomass-based resources, such as firewood, to cook. Around 3.8 million premature deaths are caused by indoor air pollution annually, most in the developing world. Despite efforts to increase the prevalence of cleaner burning stoves and cleaner fuel, 3 billion continue to use solid fuels on open fires.

Across the areas we work in in developing countries, we typically come across households in rural communities using highly inefficient three-stone fires for their cooking and boiling of unsafe water for purification. These traditional fires require large amounts of firewood to do only a small amount of work due to their inefficient nature.

As a result of burning large quantities of firewood on these open fires, large volumes of carbon emissions are released contributing to climate change, as well as harmful pollutants causing significant health problems to those regularly exposed to them, such as the elderly, women and children.

Our improved cookstove carbon projects involve introducing improved technologies, such as improved cookstoves, into households through community buy-in schemes. With the help from our local partners, communities are trained how to use and maintain the stoves effectively and educated on the dangers of indoor air pollution and how the new stoves are helping tackle it. Our safe water projects involve rehabilitating safe water sources, to reduce the amount of firewood burned on three-stone fires by removing the need to purify unclean water.

Our projects directly contribute to tackling Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing. Through robust monitoring and calculations within our cookstove projects and certain water projects, we determine the reduction in household air pollution following the project implementation, which are certified by the verification body Gold Standard.

Millions of people are continuing to suffer from preventable diseases and many are dying prematurely – World Environment Day is helping raise awareness of this widespread problem and drive incentive for action. Through focused, community initiatives involving education and key training, the adoption of cleaner, more modern stoves and rehabilitation of broken safe water sources can reduce the risk of illnesses and save lives.

Water, sanitation and hygiene training in Kaliro, Uganda

In May, CO2balance in-country partner WAACHA conducted WASH training in Kaliro District, Uganda.

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The purpose of the annual training is to sensitise the communities on important issues such as keeping the area around the borehole clean and storing water correctly. The training takes place every year to reinforce these values.

These important visits ensure that the project boreholes can be properly maintained by the communities, thus protecting the long-term future of the water point. The practises and techniques taught also help protect the groundwater from contamination and ensure that the water is stored safely at home.

The Kaliro Safe Water project reduces CO2 emissions by providing communities with safe water, so they no longer need to boil water with firewood as a treatment method. The WASH training are used along side water quality testing to ensure that the communities are consuming safe water year round. As well as reducing CO2 emissions, this project provides safe water to rural communities and cuts cases of water-borne diseases and diarrhoea.

CO2balance in Sierra Leone

CO2balance has been exploring the options for launching projects in Sierra Leone for a long time. Following on from extensive nationwide feasibility studies, we finally decided recently to launch an initial borehole rehabilitation and maintenance programme in partnership with the NGO CODE-SL. Having lived in Sierra Leone back in 2016 and been captivated by the country’s natural beauty and generous people, I was very excited to return to meet our new partners and to explore Kono, the remote district in the East of the country where we are conducting the pilot phase of our project.

The need is immense in Sierra Leone for projects that ensure access to safe water and promote improved sanitation practices. Official figures state that 53% of the country’s rural population lack access to an improved water source, but in reality this figure is likely to be much higher. Whilst many rural communities have had access to safe water from a hand pump powered borehole at some point, a vast proportion of these have fallen into disrepair due to a lack of training or resources for them to be maintained locally. The situation is even starker regarding improved sanitation, with just 6.9% or rural communities having access to improved sanitation facilities. The impacts of these trends can be seen in the shocking figure that over 90% of rural water sources in Sierra Leone are infected with E-Coli.

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A broken-down handpump in Old Kissy Town, Kono district

My visit had 2 main purposes: to travel with CODE-SL to visit some of the communities in Kono where we will be working to repair and maintain boreholes and to attend the Local Stakeholder Consultation meeting, which introduces the project to local authorities in the target area and solicits their feedback.

The visits in Kono district were fascinating. We travelled to some of the most remote corners of the district, reaching the village of Kaadu where we looked across the Mel river into the Republic of Guinea. In Kaadu, we saw the broken down handpump which will shortly be repaired and visited the current water source, which is a murky and mossy pool in the forest about a 20 minute walk away from the village. We met Sita Sandi there, a local woman with 4 children who usually has to travel to the water source about 3 times per day. She reported that although they boil the water they collect, waterborne illnesses remain a major problem and that her son had just missed several days of school through diarrhoea. She looks forward to the completion of the borehole rehabilitation, as she hopes that it will save her the best part of 2 hours every day to have fresh water available in the village. Crucially, it will also reduce the scourge of waterborne disease which has greatly disrupted her children’s education.

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Sita Sandi collects water outside Kaadu

Having visited the communities, we conducted the local stakeholder consultation meeting in the city of Koidu, which was attended by several councillors from Kono district in addition to representatives of local NGOs and leaders of communities to be targeted in the project. The meeting was a fantastic meeting of minds of the key stakeholders with whom CODE-SL and CO2balance will be working in the coming years, and the feedback for the project was overwhelmingly positive. Stakeholders praised the concept of the project, particularly its focus on long-term maintenance of water points due to the high risk that water points can break down if they are not regularly serviced. It was also discussed that there is a great need for the project to reach beyond the initial 30 communities, with stakeholders assured that if all goes well in the initial phase of the project, we hope to significantly expand the reach in the coming years.

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The CODE-SL/CO2balance team gather before the LSC meeting

I’d like to thank our partners, CODE-SL, for their welcome and for their hard work on the feasibility phase of the project. This marks not only our first project in Sierra Leone, but our very first project in West Africa. It’s very exciting to expand into this new region and we hope that it will be a gateway to further projects in West Africa in the coming years. The first borehole rehabilitations will be conducted in the next couple of months – watch this space for more updates from Sierra Leone!

Zambia Safe Water Project Development: Local Stakeholder Consultation

At the end of February, CO2balance Project Manager, Emma, travelled to Zambia to meet local partner organisation, ROCS, and to host a local stakeholder consultation for new borehole rehabilitation and maintenance projects in the Eastern Province. This is what she had to say about the trip: 

CO2balance has been exploring the possibility of developing a safe water project in Zambia for some time, so it was great to take the first steps into helping it come into fruition. Reformed Open Community Schools (ROCS) is an experienced and well respected local NGO that operate across Zambia. While their focus is predominantly on education and school projects, they also have significant experience in rehabilitating community boreholes and carrying out WASH campaigns.

ROCS Field Office in Lundazi

It was my first time in Zambia, and I was struck by the friendliness of the people and, as I was there in the ‘Emerald Season’, the lushness of the environment. The ROCS team gave me a warm welcome in Lusaka before we travelled up to Lundazi together to meet the local communities and stakeholders that will be targeted by the project, and to hold a stakeholder meeting to discuss the project design and impacts.

In the drive up to Lundazi we travelled through changing landscapes, and it was striking to see the reduction in forest cover in the more rural areas in the Eastern Province, our destination. Once in Lundazi we were able to visit rural communities in Lundazi, Lumezi, and Chasefu Districts. In all of these districts access to safe water presents a daily challenge for communities- with many of the boreholes installed in recent decades not functioning, they are forced to collect water from the only sources available to them, which are mostly ponds or streams, referred to locally as ‘dambos’. As the water sources are unsafe, many households have to boil their water over traditional 3 stone fires in order to purify it for drinking.

Speaking to a local Village Headman, he also underlined the impact that unsafe water can have on the health of his community. The majority of the community suffer from stomach related illnesses at least once a month, but most people can’t afford to attend a clinic for each incidence. Many of the women that I spoke to also highlighted the massive impact that having a reliable safe water source in their community would have on their every day lives- saving them valuable time and the burden of carrying heavy full jerrycans and firewood over long distances.

At the Local Stakeholder Consultation, stakeholders from across the District gathered to discuss the project and give their feedback on the project impact and design. At the moment, ROCS and CO2balance are aiming to rehabilitate and maintain 50 boreholes across Lundazi District, that will also focus on contributing to key SDGs including Clean Water and Sanitation, Gender Equality, and Good Health and Wellbeing.

It was a privilege to be part of the meeting, to hear first hand what the stakeholders thought of the project and what they think the impacts will be. Stakeholders ranged from local government to community members, and it was great to see that everyone played an active role in contributing, particularly in group discussions on safeguarding principles and SDGs. Overall, all the stakeholders were incredibly positive and supportive of the project, urging work on the ground to start as quickly as possible.

Stakeholders discussing the impacts that the project will have on SDG 5: Gender Equality

It was an absolute pleasure to spend time in Zambia with the ROCS team and the communities and stakeholders in Lundazi District. We are really excited to start moving on the project, and given the positive feedback from the stakeholders, we are aiming to start the rehabilitation of the boreholes in April, when they will start crediting. Watch this space for future updates!