The Sahara, one of the largest deserts in the world, stretching from one end of Africa to the other, covers a swathe of 3.5 million square miles. It could fit the entire United States within its borders, including Alaska.
And it’s growing.
A study by the journal Climate reported that between 1920 and 2013, the desert has expanded by 10% in size. The Sahara supposedly is moving southward, into a semi-fertile region below the desert known as the Sahel. The expansion, brought on by climate change, unsustainable farming practices and overgrazing may soon render the region uninhabitable to a growing population of 100 million people.
That number may double in the next two decades if current birth rates continue, potentially leading to humanitarian catastrophe if the Sahara’s spread isn’t stopped.
For a little over ten years, the African Union and its member states have worked to abate this fate. In 2007, they announced one of the most ambitious climate plans in modern history, known as the Great Green Wall.
Twenty-one countries agreed to plant a 4,750 mile-long wall of trees that would supposedly stay off the desert’s extension. If completed, the wall will cover 247 million acres with vegetation and extend two times the length of China’s Great Wall.
The project has $8 billion in pledged funding and backing from the French government and World Bank. By revegetating lands, providing a physical barrier to winds, and securing topsoil, the wall was originally thought to be a paragon to the region’s climate woes.
Since the project’s announcement, millions of acres have been revitalized. But thirteen years on, it is only 15% complete. The deadline originally set was 2030. It does not appear that this goal will be met.
The project has undoubtedly made impressive developments, but it hasn’t fully lived up to its initial idea — failing in some aspects and evolving in others. We talked to Nisreen Elsaim, a climate activist and a UN Youth Climate Envoy, to find out why.
Following in the footsteps of her grandmother and mother, Nisreen is a third-generation environmental activist who holds degrees in physics and renewable energy, but Elsaim says her true passion was always political science.
It was this passion that spurred her involvement in climate diplomacy, a practical combination of her scientific background and an intense interest in politics, she says.
“It’s a scientific issue, yet there is a lot of political engagement in it.”
It is clear why Elsaim gravitated towards climate activism. Sudan, Nisreen’s home country, currently suffers from an assortment of different environmental challenges. Some experts fear climate change could even render Sudan uninhabitable if drastic measures aren’t taken.
Sudan’s north, part of the Sahel region, is suffering from severe desertification, leading to low soil fertility, drought, and dangerous dust storms known as ‘haboob’.
Other regions are rocked by habitual flooding. Recent floods wiped out a refugee camp, destroyed 1,200 houses, and affected up to 50,000 people.
Elsaim is a part of several grassroots organizations working on climate issues, but she says funding is a problem.
“Funding for countries like Sudan is very hard and it’s even harder when you categorize yourself as a youth-led organization. Donors like big names and structure and dozens of employees with ties and suits.”
Despite these difficulties, climate activists continue to work on programs within their communities. One such project that Nisreen and her colleagues are working on is to help pastoralists and farmers transition into new jobs after climate change, macro-economic influences like inflation, or environmental degradation pushed them out of work.
Teaching them new skills in computer science and software development is one avenue, but environmental education is another important prong of their strategy as well. If these farmers and pastoralists move back into their former occupations, sustainable grazing and planting practices are among the most important factors in battling desertification.
The progress of the Great Green Wall and other climate initiatives expectedly varies by country. Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Senegal are leading the pack in replanting. In Senegal, more than 11 million trees have been planted, fertilizing nearly 62,000 acres of land.
Countries like Sudan and Ghana aren’t faring as well.
The variance can be partially attributed to a difference in geography. Places like Ethiopia and Senegal are as a whole more fertile than drier countries such as Sudan and Mali, and likely see more revegetation success as a result. In some parts of Ethiopia, farmers can plant seeds and rainwater will facilitate the growth.
In most of Sudan, Nisreen says, tree campaigns require considerably more labor and water for manual irrigation.
“In a very dry place like Sudan, you have to make sure there are resources for that. When we tried to do it (plant trees) with some rural areas, they said ‘Even us, the humans, don’t have access to (enough) clean drinking water, so how are we going to secure it for planting trees?’ Their argument was very valid, I couldn’t say much to it.”
Nisreen is skeptical if the Great Green Wall will be done in time, citing the inefficiency of the African government as well as the many new governments across the region. “When you have a new country like Sudan, where we didn’t have a proper government for 30 years, this (new) government is trying to repair 30 years of destruction. I don’t think they’ll be able to manage such a project.”
Other experts echo her sentiments.
“This was a stupid way of restoring land in the Sahel,” says Dennis Garrity, a senior research fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre. A sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute claims that if the original plan had continued, a vast majority of the trees would have just died.
For several years, the project made sluggish progress, finding moderate success. Then, somewhat accidentally, the wall’s strategy shifted. Scientists and African leaders realized that local communities in the Sahel, and specifically in Niger, were implementing more successful practices themselves.
“It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing,” says Mohamed Bakarr, the lead environmental specialist for Global Environment Facility, the organization that examines the environmental benefit of World Bank projects, in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine.
After Niger’s communities abandoned poor colonial farming practices that partially degraded their land, the country started to see widespread vegetation growth in an otherwise dry countryside.
By identifying species of trees that are able to survive in their harsh environment, pruning them to promote growth, and growing other crops around the trees, farmers in Niger found success that most other Sahel communities did not.
This process, among others, allowed for more organic growth and sustainable practices that greened much of the country’s barren landscapes. And it was done without major intervention from a centralized body like the African Union.
Now, Niger may be a model for other countries attempting to bring this wall to fruition. When counted in 2011, there were more than 12 million acres restored in Niger alone.
In other countries where more centralized projects have been implemented, inefficient and sometimes incorrect planting practices have caused significant setbacks.
“You have to plant trees in a proper distance from each other, and some of my friends have started entire initiatives to replant the trees planted by the (original) campaigns…Most of the campaigns did it incorrectly.”
Tree planting campaigns are still occurring, and some are making progress, but this tactic is no longer the sole approach.
Like most other initiatives in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted climate efforts, but social distancing and non-physical activities are not an option for those on the front lines of these projects. Face-to-face contact is often the only way of promoting education and training for rural populations in the Sahel.
Local politics perhaps play the largest role in the success of these projects. Last year, Sudan outed 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir, most notoriously known for his role in the Darfur Genocide. As the country is currently still finding its footing politically and economically, funding climate initiatives is hardly a priority.
“We had to stop working on issues like climate change for a year. Because compared to the Sudanese Revolution, climate change was not something we could actually mention.”
Nisreen says organization efforts wouldn’t have been possible even if they tried. “It was not safe at all to have any kind of gathering because you could be arrested just for having a meeting to talk about climate change, the environment, etc.” During the revolution, any gathering of more than five people was illegal.
Institutions, Nisreen emphasizes are necessary to address this problem. “We need a bottom-to-top approach, not a top-to-bottom.” For much of the region, strong institutions and stable governments are rare.
Herdsmen and farmers in the region have been clashing over land and water resources for years, but a decrease in arable land has worsened tensions. In the west, Islamic groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa terrorize citizens and African governments, and in some instances, they’ve overthrown some regimes altogether.
For those governments that can, Nisreen urges leaders to recognize the many different facets of climate change, acknowledging how the climate is connected to economics, health, and the social impact of the environment. Only by taking this step does she think governments will make a difference.
“When they understand this, they can integrate it into our local and national policies. If they are trying to work on a policy to compact desertification they have to address climate change, when they’re talking about peace agreements between tribes they have to address climate change, and if they do not understand that climate change is a part of everything in our lives nowadays then the problems will not be solved at all.”