Living in the desert?

July 19, 2013

About one billion people are threatened by desertification and approximately 250 million people are directly impacted. The inhabitants of the poorest regions in the world such as Senegal, Ethiopia and Somalia, are the most seriously affected by the desolation of land and loss of topsoil. However, desertification is not just a problem in the poorest countries around the globe. Emerging nations such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico as well as transition countries in Central Asia and industrialized countries are also affected. Overall, over than 110 countries have dryland areas that are on the brink of becoming deserts or threatened to transform into deserts.

Ravaged by human hand
While there are various natural reasons for desertification, such as, for example, climate change, it is mainly  down to human intervention in nature: Deforestation and overgrazing are factors expediting land degradation as is the overexploitation of agriculture and faulty irrigation practices. Factors such as people using the few trees and bushes they have as firewood, or feeding their livestock with grass and not giving nature sufficient time to re-grow. Wherever they cause low groundwater levels by making deep wells thereby not allowing vegetation the chance to regenerate, the soil becomes dry, sandy and salinated. Wind, rain and sun also contribute to the erosion or incrustation of valuable topsoil.

Should a region be thrown wildly out of balance due to the exploitation of natural resources, there are dramatic consequences as were seen during the Sahel Droughts in the 1970s: Land degradation destroys the food source for the population, existential problems in developing countries deepen political instability and conflicts therefore leading to increased migration from rural areas to urban centers. Nouakchott, Mauretania’s capital, for instance, increased from about 300,000 inhabitants (1988) to almost 900,000 inhabitants (2013) within 25 years. Experts predict that the flow of migration in the Sahel from the desert to coastal cities will be three times higher in the coming decades. Over 272 million people would be affected by this and Europe would also not be able to isolate itself  from the increasing flow of refugees.

Sending environmental sins into the wilderness

Desertification is a global issue, but one that receives far too little public attention. This is why the UN Convention to Combat is one of the most important instruments in the struggle against desertification and its consequences on the world. The primary objective of the convention is to “promote processes and activities relating to combating desertification and/or mitigating the effects of drought within the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas of Africa.“ (Annex 1, Article UNCCD). The convention is implemented by National Action Plans (NAPs).

Convincing people at a political level is one primary goal. Those in charge politically,  frequently insist on measures such as monoculture cultivation of export products like cotton or peanuts, cutting down forests for grazing purposes or  intervening in the natural processes of the settling of nomad populations. However, amongst numerous others, there is Nebeday, a small but effectively working association in Senegal, which is raising awareness amongst the population. They illustrate how operating in a sustainable manner with natural resources is essential and that what is needed are useful alternatives to protect forests against deforestation when obtaining firewood.


From straw to gold

Nebeday has set itself the goal of preserving the natural resources in Senegal and regenerating them wherever possible. People should also learn to understand the economic benefit derived from the active protection of the environmental. The organization’s environmental education activities focus on women and children in Senegal showing them alternative strategies on how to prevent the exploitation of the environment.

It is possible, for example, to reduce unsustainable harvesting practices in Senegal’s forests by producing lignite from straw: The majority of private households in Senegal uses wood as fuel as well as for the production of charcoal. More efficient cooking stoves are unaffordable for most families, and gas cooking is only possible in urban regions. Nebeday has therefore established a procedure to transform straw into coal. The process is very similar to a traditional charcoal burner and helps to turn abundant natural resources into valuable fuel. At the same moment, the collecting of dried grass helps to reduce the risk of bushfires.

The spreading of deserts is a quiet and drawn-out process. The consequences are mainly manifested by famines or the movement of refugees. An effective response to prevent desertification must equally include political, social and environmental aspects and has to strengthen public awareness.

By the way, the “World Day to Combat Desertification” is held on 17 June every year.

Caroline Weimann
Caroline Weimann

Caroline Weimann is member of the “empowering people. Award” team at the Siemens Stiftung (foundation). She studied International Law, Economics and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London as well as Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. Before joining the Siemens Stiftung, she worked on health and development issues at the European Commission and at a consultancy firm for non-profit organizations.


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