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Africa’s Great Green Wall: Stopping the Spread of the Sahara

Some Megaprojects really deserve the term ‘Mega’ and the world’s largest reforestation project is one of them. The Great Green Wall (GGW, which will one day hopefully stretch across Africa, is a visionary project, spectacular in size and scope.

But at its core it is a relatively simple plan – plant a vast line of trees 16 km (10 miles) wide, that will stretch from Senegal on the Atlantic coast, to Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden, totalling some 8,000 km (4,970 miles), as a way to prevent the creeping desertification that threatens to tumble down from the Sahara Desert. 

When completed, the Great Green Wall will form the largest living organism on the planet, three times the size of its nearest competitor the Great Barrier Reef. But perhaps I should say if this project is ever completed. With a targeted completion date of 2030, the Great Green Wall has been ongoing for over ten years but is still less than 10% complete. What’s more, there are growing concerns that many new samplings simply won’t survive without careful maintenance and whether the project’s lofty ambitions were flawed in the first place. 

As time progresses, however, it appears more and more likely that the finished article may not in fact be the grand wall once touted, but instead, a vast mosaic of land cared for with more traditional methods that will focus on grassroots planning and water conservation. There is still plenty up in the air regarding the Great Green Wall, but it remains an ecological project of unmatched breadth. 

Desertification and the Sahel Region        

Map of the Sahel
Map of the Sahel.By Munion, is licensed under CC-BY

Sandwiched between the foreboding Sahara Desert to the north and the relatively lush Sudanian Savanna to the south, the Sahel is the transitional region in between. Not quite as extreme as the great sandpit above it, the Sahel comes with a tropical semi-arid climate that generally receives a painfully low amount of rainwater throughout the year – ranging from just 100 mm (3.9 inches) in some areas of Sudan to 1200 mm (47.2 inches) in Mali on the other side of the continent. To make things worse, rainfall in the Sahel is sporadic at best, and it’s not unheard of for a year’s supply of water to arrive within the relatively short window of the rainy season, with absolutely nothing coming for the remaining 8 months or so. It’s also exceedingly hot, with winter temperatures – and I’m using the word winter in a figurative sense here – anywhere between 27 and 33 °C (81 and 91 °F) and summer temperatures between 36 and 42 °C (97 and 108 °F). 

Roughly 135 million people call this area home today, but with predictions that that number could more than double by the year 2050, coupled with increasing environmental issues exacerbated by climate change, this region, already one of the poorest on Earth, faces a difficult future. 

The problems faced in the Sahel Region are painfully numerous, from over-farming, overgrazing, over-population of marginal lands, and natural soil erosion, mixed with political instability and even terrorist activity. Then there are the droughts – and even megadroughts that have long hit this troubled region in Africa. If you’re wondering just how mega a drought can really get, try the 250 years in the Sahel between 1450 and 1700. A particularly harrowing drought came in 1914 when low rainfall led to widespread famine across the region. Generally speaking, this area experiences some of the most consistent and severe droughts anywhere in Africa. 

And lastly, we come to the doom-laden word, desertification. Essentially this means fertile land being slowly swallowed up by the encroaching desert. It sounds like a slow process – it certainly is – but considering that the Sahara Desert has grown by 10% in just 100 years you start to get an idea of the staggering magnitude. In that period alone, the Sahara has expanded by roughly 554,000sq km (213, 900) sq miles – that’s almost one and half times the size of California. And let’s just be crystal clear about the effects of desertification. To begin with, the soil starts to degrade leaving the land almost infertile, which in turn can have catastrophic consequences for grazing livestock. This gradually worsens until you’re staring at sand dunes wondering what happened to your vegetable patch. 

Jokes aside, this is a monumental problem and the UN said in 2014 that 20 million face hunger or famine in the Sahel region as a result of desertification. It is a colossal issue that required an equally titanic effort to address it. 

Background  

The first mention of something along the lines of what is underway today came from a British explorer, Richard St. Barbe Baker, who worked in the region during the 1920s and visited again in the 1950s when he proposed a Green Front that would stretch across the continent and keep the expanding desert at bay. 

The next few decades were turbulent, to say the least across this region of Africa as countries across the continent gained independence but also sadly often descended into violence in the ensuing power struggles. The idea was mooted again during the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the following decade when it began to pick up steam – but still, it would be nearly 30 years before the project was formally established. 

The Great Green Wall   

In 2007 the Great Green Wall Project finally came into being with the backing of the African Union, the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations. As I mentioned at the start of the video, the goals and directives have changed over time, but essentially it began as a project to plant a vast forest across Africa from Senegal to Djibouti passing through nine other countries along the way, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania. 

The goal was to restore one hundred million hectares of degraded land by 2030 – an area four times the size of the entire state of Michigan – which is hoped could sequester 250 million tons of carbon, while also providing 10 million green jobs. But really that’s just the start. With the Great Green Wall in place, it’s hoped that those living in and around the area will be able to farm using richer soil, which in turn will lead to better food security, economic opportunities and better resilience against the effects of climate change. Quite simply, if all goes to plan, this extraordinary project could well help to reverse the fortunes of a region facing the brunt of the climate crisis.     

The Project So Far

The plan was undoubtedly noble and ambitious in its intentions but has been rolled out with wildly varying degrees across the countries taking part. Some nations began almost immediately, while others have fallen further and further behind, and because of this, the project is now estimated to be roughly ten years behind schedule.  

And before we start diving into specific countries and what they’ve done so far on the project, it’s important to reiterate that this is a project that certainly seems to be in flux in terms of its aims and how best to achieve them. Even the name, the Great Green Wall, is becoming somewhat of a misdemeanour as the project has slowly – and quietly – evolved from a vast wall of lush forest that will stretch across the continent to one that will encompass reforested lands, multipurpose gardens, windbreaks, training for better water use as well as for food security and land management. Even the U.N has slightly altered its wording around the GGW, now calling it “Africa’s flagship initiative to combat land degradation, desertification and drought.”

The reasons behind this are fairly complex. While the notion of the largest living organism on the planet no doubt sounded wonderful, it was an idea fraught with problems from the very start. It’s that between 60 and 80% of the new saplings planted along the route have already died, after all, we’re talking about planting trees in one of the most inhospitable places to plant trees on the planet. It’s not clear whether this was anticipated from the start, and it’s simply a numbers game, or whether the scale of the project was vastly overestimated and has suffered from poor management in certain places.  

But while the project will most likely not deliver the Great Green Wall as advertised, something even better might be emerging. If the nations involved really did underestimate how many trees would survive, they’ve shown remarkable fluidity to pivot and lead the project in a slightly different direction. And this is a project that is rapidly expanding, with an additional nine countries joining the GGW, even though they aren’t technically along the proposed route. 

Ethiopia 

Ethiopia saw some of the earliest and most impressive action taken along the GGW with a reported 1 million hectares of land already restored. This is focused in the northeast of the country and covers 58 woredas (administrative districts) across three national regional states. 

Over 5 billion plants and seeds have been produced, with 51,448 hectares of reforested lands, 792,711 hectares of terraces restored, 240 hectares of multipurpose gardens and 91 km of windbreaks – natural barriers of trees or bushes to provide shelter from the wind and to protect soil from erosion. 

On top of this, the program in Ethiopia has created 218,405 jobs and trained a further 62,759 people on food and energy security as well as the maintenance of biodiversity. However, Ethiopia is also a prime example of just how fragile things can be, with the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region in the north of the country, leaving hundreds of thousands facing famine conditions. It’s a stark reminder that humans will play a fundamental role in the success or failure of the GGW project. 

Niger 

Niger is one country that has achieved some dramatic success that has almost flown under the radar. Here, the GGW intervention area spreads across three climate zones: the Saharan zone, the Sahel-Saharan zone and the Sahelian zone and has so far seen 364,615 hectares of reforested lands along with 363,928 hectares of restored land – both roughly three-quarters of the size of the Grand Canyon. 

The country has produced 146 million plants and seedlings created 21,487 jobs and trained roughly 1,200 people on food and energy security, while also stabilizing 80,040 hectares of dunes through a process known as dune fixation – which often uses anti-erosive wickerworks to halt the shift of sand dunes.

But while Niger is certainly doing well in keeping up with the GGW schedule, this success story predates the project by decades. During the 1980s, farmers in the area began turning to low-cost ways of growing trees or shrubs using rootstock in their cleared fields. The rootstock is typically an underground section of an old plant from which a new plant can be grafted onto above ground. If that sounds a little industrial, it kind of is. Through grafting, it’s possible to combine the tissues of two plants to become one. This technique is especially important because it means you can chop a tree down right to its base to be used for firewood, but with a healthy root system still in place, it can essentially be recycled.

And the effects of this have been quite extraordinary. In 2004, Niger’s Zinder Valley had 50 times more trees than it did back in 1975 when an Australian by the name of Tony Rinaudo, who was working with a religious nonprofit in the area, began working with local farmers. 

Senegal 

The last of the countries that we’re going to take a closer look at is Senegal, which lies on the western edge of the planned Great Green Wall. 

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