Sahara, sea of sand, desert of legend, is ever-advancing. Over time, the Sahara Desert has expanded into the Sahel, a transnational ‘shore’ of African countries. Population in the Sahel has increased 120% in the last three decades: now, 64% of the population is under 25%. The encroaching Sahara, along with climate change induced heat and drought, is choking crops; 3.7 million people suffering the effects of crop loss, with shortages of millet and sorghum, staples. Famine, conflict, migration threaten the area. The Sahel reaches 3,360 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, all across the southern belt of the Sahara Desert. What can be done? Two answers may be emerging.
The Sahel has some of the largest aquifers in the continent, as much as 100 times annual rainfall and other renewable sources. But the Law of Transboundary Aquifers is still in draft. Sahel countries need to decide the use of shared water for drinking, agriculture, and industry. Agreements should also monitor extraction; some of the aquifers are sizable but slow to refill and replenish. Precedent for water sharing might include the Colorado River Compact, especially amendments. A future exploration of the Sahara itself may tap water resources under the sands, and a proposal by Frank P. Davidson for Lake Hope (2012).
Stopping Saharan desert expansion is important. The possibility of planting a green wall across the boundary of the Sahara to stem desert invasion of fertile lands adjacent is said to have been pondered by Richard St. Barbe Baker OBE during a study expedition to the Sahara in the mid 20th century. There was talk of building a test model of 30 miles at that time. But the present vision of green wall across Africa of 4,722 miles (7,600 kilometers) didn’t take root until 2002, when the Green Wall was re-introduced at the summit in Chad of the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Support grew. Three years later, the concept was approved by the Community of Sahel-Saharan States; two years after that, in 2007, the African Union endorsed the “Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative.” The Great Green Wall hopes to restore and renew 100 million hectares by 2030, reduce CO2, absorbing 250 million tons, and create 10 million green jobs. Ethiopia has already restored 15 million hectares.
But results are still to be judged. Some point out that desertification is not just the fault of the Sahara, but instead may be due to deforestation and denuding of land. Observing success in applying traditional water conservation and harvesting methods, and nurturing of trees that appear naturally, the project is evolving into something that is working, in a different way. There are some who warn against some methods of afforestation, and choice of plantings is critical to success. Recent progress in Burkina Faso with building zaï, a grid planting method promoting water retention is one example. Another: increased respect for Faidherbia albida, an indigenous tree that defoliates during the rainy season, dropping leaves that fertilize soil, and also permit full sun during the subsequent early growing season. Other factors might be considered like walking paths, as envisioned by architect Benton MacKaye, resulting in the Appalachian Trail. Some suggest the Green Green Wall of Africa could become a model for a new CCC. The work of John D. Liu combines regreening with camps. Other green walls of afforestation include China’s Three-North Shelter Forest Program, China began the project in 1978 to stop the Gobi desert from advancing; while monoculture and some tree loss are problems, forest size has increased from 5% to 13.% with 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of trees planted (an area the size of western Europe). China will complete the afforestation project in 2050. India’s Green Wall of Aravalli, proposed by Vijaypal Baghel at COP 14 would build 1,6000 km of green; and Great Hedge of India, originally related to customs control line for 1870’s salt tax, and later grown into a living hedge. Progress of green walls can now be tracked through Earth Observation Satellites. ESA’s Prova-V monitors the Sahel.
Macroengineering endeavors involving transboundary resources may require an organizational form that allows for coordination of many different and interacting systems. As climate change affects regions, not just nations, will we see more macro solutions? The advancing Sahara desert does not stop at the Mali border but threatens the whole southern edge of the desert. The rising Atlantic ocean does not stop at Maine in the United States but continues to lap the coast of Canada. Africa’s Great Green Wall may set an example.
When completed, the Great Green Wall of the Sahel would be the largest living structure on Earth – three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. The 7,600 km (4,000 plus miles) natural wonder of the world may be visible from space. As the Great Green Wall evolves to benefit from traditional water conservation measures, countries of the Sahel may work together to rebuild and strengthen the fertility of the land and its treasured water resources, the Sahel may build more than a wall, but also a foundation.
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