Editorial Feature

The Great Green Wall of Africa-Can it Save the Continent?

The Sahara is the most famous desert in the world and is instantly recognisable by its golden sand and giant rolling dunes. Despite its uniform and unvarying appearance, it is thought that the Sahara region is climatically changeable and has the capacity to drastically vary in size and form. For instance, evidence from ancient paintings suggests that during the first ages of human civilisation it was a much wetter, more fertile environment.

The Sahara desert is also the world’s largest desert (excluding the Antarctic). With an area of 9 400 000km2 it covers around 10% of the African continent and is almost as large as China. The major issue today is that it is still growing via desertification.

Though it is not often covered in the press, the growth of the Sahara is a human crisis on a grand scale, with 18 million people in the Sahel region, a semi-arid band just south of the desert, now facing a major food crisis. For example, this year Burkina Faso is facing a 32 000-ton rice shortage as farm land is being destroyed and rainfall is being reduced by the encroaching Sahara.

The answer proposed by a transcontinental group of African nations may seem at first like an idea for a children’s novel, but it may yet be the drastic solution needed to save millions. The group has proposed a giant wall, 15km wide and 8000km long, composed of plants, trees and bushes to stretch across the continent of Africa. It will stretch along the southern border of the Sahara desert in order to attempt to stop desertification of the Sahel area of the country.

It is a grand idea for a grand problem: Around 40% of the entire African continent has now succumbed to desertification and this is increasing year on year. The hope is that this giant hedgerow will trap the Sahara dust and stop its progress into Sub-Saharan regions. Perhaps even returning the Sahara to the more pleasant region depicted in early paintings.

The vast Sahara desert, as seen from space.

The vast Sahara desert, as seen from space. Image Credits: earthobservatory.nasa.gov 

What is Desertification?

Desertification, as the name suggests, is the process of fertile land being turned into arid, unusable desert.

The primary cause of desertification is poor farming practises in semi-arid environments during droughts, turning soil into dust, meaning that the land cannot recover.

Desertification can also be caused by global climate changes and a decrease in vegetation.

The problems associated with desertification are far reaching and catastrophic. Farming land is often destroyed- in Africa this is a major issue, and it is thought that by 2025 almost two-thirds of farmland in Africa will be unusable if desertification continues unabated. Biodiversity is also lost, rainfall is reduced and water resources become increasingly scarce.

In Africa, the Sahel area is increasingly under threat. In Senegal for instance, the rainy season is now much shorter, starting in September rather than July. Food and water shortages are common, and many people are being forced to leave their homes in search of a sustainable living.

History of the Great Green Wall

The building of the wall has been in the pipeline for several years. It was first conceived in the 1980s by the then leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara and was brought to the forefront of people’s minds once more in 2005 by the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. The building of the wall was finally approved by an international summit in February 2011.

Various institutions have pledged money to help the wall become a reality. The World Bank has supplied around 1.8 billion dollars to the cause. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) has allocated $108 million dollars so far to the construction of the wall.

The wall is now under construction, though there are still differing opinions as to how the project should be managed. The majority of political leaders see the wall as a literal barricade to hold back the desert. However, some experts are trying to change perceptions of the wall so that it becomes a metaphor for a wide-ranging project dedicated to stemming poverty and improving sustainability in the area.

Issues with the Great Green Wall

As with all large-scale projects, the great green wall has its critics. Some experts say that the project is simply too big to work, as it stretches across such vast economical, ecological and political divides. It is entirely possible that one country in the chain may lose the political will, or the financial capability, to continue with the project. Furthermore, trees being planted which are not native to the area will not survive.

An alternative suggestion that has been proposed is to simply let nature take its course. This has been successful in Niger, where farmers have taken to planting crops around naturally occurring flora. The results have been incredible, with 12 million acres of trees growing in the area since the 1980’s.

Which Countries are involved in the Great Green Wall?

The great green wall is planned to stretch from the horn of Africa in the east to Dakar in the west, passing through 11 separate, participating countries. These countries are:

  • Burkina Faso
  • Chad
  • Djibouti
  • Eritrea
  • Ethiopia
  • Mali
  • Mauritania
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • Senegal
  • Sudan

So far, Senegal has made the most progress with the wall, with 50000 acres of trees already planted and many more given protection.

Further Advantages of the Great Green Wall

Beyond the main aim of preventing irrevocable desertification, there are other advantages that also come with the construction of the world’s largest hedgerow.

Firstly, the wall will protect vital water sources in the area and even help create new ones. It is hoped that the water table will become rejuvenated via surplus rainfall and this will lead to the regrowth of large bodies of water such as Lake Chad, which has been reduced by 95% since the 1960’s.

The wall will also provide food in the form of fruit and vegetables, as well as environmentally friendly fuel. For example in Senegal, Acacia nilotica are being planted in vast numbers, which produce fruit for animal feed and components of certain medicines.

Lastly, it is hope that the great green wall can become a symbol of unity across a continent which has too often been ravaged by war. Perhaps the cohesion required to undertake such a project will provide political stability in a region which so desperately needs to join forces to tackle the larger issues of our time.

Sources and Further Reading

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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