Struggling to force the Sahara back as climate change wreaks havoc in Senegal

Desertification and rising sea levels pose serious threats to life in Africa

At first viewing here in the remote interior of Senegal, there are just three problems with the Great Green Wall, sub-Saharan Africa’s attempt to stop the continuing advance of the Sahara in its tracks. It isn’t great. It isn’t green. And for now, it doesn’t amount to much of a wall capable of blocking the desert.

Far from tarmacadamed roads and power supply lines, the “wall” here is made up of a few lines of fragile mango trees, wilting sadly in the overpowering mid-afternoon heat. A wicker fence, erected to keep out animals, straggles erratically into the horizon, while a group of women sort through the tomatoes they’ve just picked under the shade of a solitary tree.

The idea is to create a wall of trees to stop the advance of the Sahara, stretching from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. Nearly 15km (nine miles) wide and almost 8,000km (5,000 miles) long, the "wall" would slow soil erosion and wind speeds, and help rain filter into the ground, thereby halting the desert's growth.

The plan is at least a decade old, but progress has been slow. Here in Louga, although the wall doesn't live up to its advance billing, there are signs of progress. Irrigation tubes peep out from under the sandy soil. Along the belt, a variety of trees has been planted – orange, guava, tamarind. The women are working small parcels of irrigated, fenced land arranged mosaic-like on this pancake-flat terrain in order to allow foraging animals to pass through.


In other words, it’s a start. Climate change has at times inconvenienced people in the West. But here in West Africa, rising temperatures, erratic rains and rising sea levels have laid waste large tracts of agricultural land. Crops won’t grow, pastoralists have to drive their animals ever further in search of water and the exodus to towns is inexorable.

Dustbowl danger
It can't go on like this. A nomad's life is predicated on the existence – somewhere – of clean water and firewood, but even this is in doubt as the region turns into a dustbowl. This EU-funded project provides a way of injecting resources and support mechanisms into communities living on the edge of sustainability – through reforestation and the provision of cash or vouchers so families don't have to sell their animals. The vegetable garden we have seen allows women to earn money independently at the market.

The buzzword is “resilience”. The new approaches all aim to increase the capacity of communities to survive the uncertainties caused by climate change. In the village of Sare Boubou, the locals are being funded to build small dams to counter soil erosion caused by flash flooding.

Heavy rains have seen deep ravines cut into the dirt tracks that connect the village to the outside world, and the small banks of stones are designed to reverse this process.

“If this goes on, the village will have to move,” explains village head Bobo Diallo. No road means no access to market and no chance to earn income for the lean times, he says.

Nearby, at Sinthiou Malem, the EU is funding a village cereal bank designed to store farmers’ surplus produce. The bank means families don’t have to sell their output at harvest time, when prices are low, and can choose when to sell according to need. When the weather misbehaves and yields are low, they can dip into their reserves to tide families through the lean season.

Food vs assistance
International agencies are employing new techniques to make their aid more effective, and more in tune with needs.

The World Food Programme used to specialise in speeding sacks of rice and tins of cooking oils to areas hit by emergencies, but it’s a food assistance agency rather than a food agency now, according to Inge Breuer, country manager in Senegal: “We’ll give help by any means so long as it improves people’s access to food.”

That might mean giving needy families the cash to buy their own food on the market, or vouchers, often in return for public works designed to improve the lot of the community. New technologies are used to ensure the speedy distribution of aid, for example bank cards and even mobile phone credits.

The agency has learned from the slow reaction to previous crises and has introduced a policy of advance purchasing (rather than waiting for promised donations to arrive) to ensure assistance is available when it’s needed and not later. So-called “twinning” arrangements with fast-growing, developing countries such as Brazil or Thailand are also a new feature of the aid scene, with those countries donating rice and other essentials, and the World Food Programme taking charge of distribution, for which the EU pays the bill.

Protection by dykes
Near the coast, at Fayil, another type of project is under way to counter the effects of rising sea levels, another byproduct of climate change largely caused by countries in the wealthy north. Much of the land here has been abandoned because of salination, but now the villagers have been supplied with food in exchange for building a dyke to reverse this process.

The dyke stops the advance of salty water but it also allows salt to leach out of the previously salinated land. It’s left open in the rainy season to wash out the contaminated soil and then closed in the dry season.

Already, 100 hectares has been reclaimed and is due to be replanted with rice shortly.

We are used to looking at such work through the prism of aid. Westerners give, we feel good about it but we reserve the right to turn off the aid tap when it suits us. However, campaigners for climate justice are increasingly talking about a debt owed by the West for the effect it has wrought on marginal communities such as those in Senegal.

Everyone to blame
That country's prime minister, Abdoul Mbaye, seemed equivocal on the issue when he spoke to me last month. "Senegal's failure to feed all its people is its greatest development failure since independence. There has been a mismatch between what we want and what we produce.

“Up to now, we’ve dealt in slogans but we now need to move beyond this. We’re in a zone that suffers regularly from the effects of climate change so we need a strategy to tackle this.”

In Mbaye’s view, “we are all responsible” for climate change.

“We have largely contributed to deforestation ourselves. It is time to revisit old projects which were abandoned,” he said. “However, in the colonial era, it was deemed the job of Senegal to service the needs of the homeland [France] by producing agriculture crops in large volumes. As a result, we broke with traditional cereal production in favour of peanut production.”

“In this sense, the French were responsible, but that doesn’t explain why, after 50 years of independence, we are in this position today.”

Some of these issues

will be discussed at the Dublin Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice , convened by the Government and the Mary Robinson Foundation , in Dublin Castle today and tomorrow

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times