How to stop desertification.

Author:Muga, Wycliffe
Position:LETTER FROM EAST AFRICA
 
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Perhaps the greatest pan-African environmental challenge, and one with enormous political and economic implications, is how to arrest and reverse the southward advance of the Sahara desert. A few projects are trying to do just that.

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There is room for debate as to the speed at which the Sahara desert is expanding - from the conservative 600m a year, to the extravagant claim on Wikipedia that it is more like 40km a year. But there is no doubt that the desert is steadily expanding southwards into sub-Saharan Africa. That has been confirmed by ground observations and orbital photographs from space missions.

In most of sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of the population are small-scale subsistence farmers making their living from the land. So progressive desertification carries with it the threat of increasing numbers of desperate, hungry people from the countryside leaving unproductive land, that was once marginally productive and able to support them, moving into Africa's towns and cities in search of work and food. This explosive scenario is very much a feature already in many African cities and could assume nightmarish proportions if even more land continues to be degraded to desertification levels. But all is not lost. There is a long-established organisation in Eastern Africa dedicated to resisting the desert's encroachment. It began as the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Desertification (IGADD) but was later reconstituted as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) so as to widen its mandate. Member countries include Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti.

But, as is so often the case, where the large and slow-moving bureaucracies of intergovernmental organisations shuffle papers, progress on the ground is being made by smaller, independent NGOs.

One such NGO, Arid Land Resources, is a Kenya-based group. In Northern Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands, apart from livestock, one of the few economic activities available to the region's nomadic communities is charcoal making. It is estimated that over 70% of Kenyan households - in rural villages as much as in the poorer neighbourhoods of major towns - use charcoal as their primary domestic fuel, with cooking gas and electricity being distant and improbable aspirations for these people. However, there is a serious environmental impact to charcoal - use in Northern Kenya. The felling of trees is contributing to the spread of...

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