A Green Africa: The Reason for Hope
Africa is among the most drought-affected regions of the world, with some parts of the continent experiencing as many as nine prolonged dry spells in the three decades between 1974 and 2004.
The rate at which land degradation is accelerating is cause for increasing concern, and according to United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) statistics, total land area degraded increased to 25 percent in 2011 from 15 percent in 1991.
A direct consequence of land degradation is drought, which has negatively impacted communities who depend on subsistence farming and livestock rearing, especially in Southern Africa and West Africa.
This has left many vulnerable communities on the continent ‑ where 75 percent of the poor lives in countries with dry land population ‑ in dire need of assistance.
According to UNCCD, two-thirds of Africa is desert or dry land, and almost three-quarters of agricultural land is degraded to some degree.
It is estimated that more than 500 million hectares of the continent’s land is affected by soil erosion and degradation. Drought and desertification greatly affect Africa’s agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability.
In many African countries, combating desertification and promoting economic development are interdependent. Many poor African people have limited choice but to over-exploit the land.
The degradation of land through use of unsustainable practices and technologies threaten their livelihoods, and household food security will remain compromised unless lasting solutions to address desertification, land degradation and drought are found.
Land degradation has been a source of social and political tensions and conflicts in some communities and countries of the continent.
Desertification has other adverse impacts on non-dry land as well. In addition to dust storms, biophysical impacts include downstream flooding, impairment of global carbon sequestration capacity, and global climate change.
The Case of Namibia
This year, Namibia – which is a historically dry country – is facing its worst drought in more than a decade that has left more than 330 000 people in rural communities in need of immediate food assistance (14 percent of Namibia’s total population of 2.3 million) and more than 100 000 children under five years of age at risk of malnutrition.
According to a May 2013 UNICEF report on the drought situation in Namibia, “The coping strategies employed by households in affected regions include going an entire day without eating, limiting portion sizes of meals and harvesting immature crops.”
Namibia’s President Hifikepunye Pohamba has declared the drought situation an emergency.
Though a Parliamentary Committee tasked by Namibia’s National Assembly to monitor the drought situation recently, has painted a gloomy picture of the situation in some of the most affected northern regions of the country blaming it on the slow pace of relief aid distribution, Namibia has done much to alleviate the situation.
The country has also done much to find a lasting solution, as, according to Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, “drought is permanent feature of the Namibian climate and not an unusual event”.
Part of the government’s efforts to find a lasting solution for the country’s recurrent drought was the establishment of a ‘National Drought Policy and Strategy’ in 1996, which, among others, aims to ensure household food security is not compromised and enable rural people and the agricultural sector to recover quickly.
This, it has done through promoting best farming practices.
However, for Namibia to make headway in building resilience among vulnerable communities, it has to move “from knowing to doing. Take what we know to community level”, as well as remove bureaucratic hurdles that are hampering progress.
Dr Mary Seally of the DRFN said this when she presented a paper on improving drought preparedness among rural communities in Namibia at a recent public lecture.
Ecological restoration of degraded land to contribute to sustainable development and poverty eradication is possible through pro-poor policies and sound water and land management.
For instance, Niger in West Africa has managed to restore five million hectares of degraded land in 20 years by planting 200 million new trees through farmer-managed natural regeneration.
At the same time, it has increased its cereal production.
Today Niger boasts a society resilient to climate shocks.
Meanwhile, low political recognition has been one of the major challenges to the UNCCD’s efforts “to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought”. And Luc Gnacadja, the Executive Secretary of UNCCD, was in Namibia recently to mobilise political support ahead of UNCCD the 11th Conference of the Parties (COP11).
Namibia hosts COP11, the first in Southern Africa, where member states will share information on the causes and extent of drought and desertification in Africa as well as to mobilise, build and promote sharing of scientific expertise and technical skills in drought and desertification related research.
During the Windhoek conference scheduled for September 16 to 27, 2013, member states will work towards improving the living conditions of people in dry lands and maintaining and restoring land and soil productivity.
Sealing the UNCCD COP11 hosting agreement recently, Namibia’s Home Affairs Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah pointed out that desertification for cropland expansion and overgrazing are the major causes of land degradation and desertification in the country that is being driven by poor and unsustainable ways of using the land for agricultural production.
She said rehabilitation of degraded lands was crucial and that scientific research and technological innovation will be required in order to better prepare for and manage the risks associated with drought.
“The COP11 takes place as Namibia experiences its severest drought in generations, which compels us to rethink the way we use our land and to come up with innovative methods to reverse land degradation and desertification in the driest country of sub-Saharan Africa,” she said.
She said hosting this conference would be a good opportunity for the country to showcase its good practices to the world in the area of land degradation and drought mitigation.
“Hosting this conference will not only further solidify Namibia's commitment to addressing the threats of land degradation, but it will also offer a snapshot of a country whose interventions against this threat have grown from strength to strength” she said.
Minister Nandi-Ndaitwah said Namibia has planned several side events ‑ a Namibian exhibition pavilion and technical tours to the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre and other community projects ‑ during the conference to showcase the country's good practices.
Speaking at the same event, Gnacadja said degradation is driven by poorly thought out and unsustainable ways of using the land for agricultural production.
This has resulted in a situation where half of Africa's population lives in dry lands.
A large part of Africa's rain forests is under very high risk of desertification and two thirds of Africa's arable land could be lost by 2025 if this trend continues
He, therefore, called for action at policy and grassroots level in order to mitigate the effects of drought, and to combat desertification and land degradation effectively.
On the ground, he called for help to enable local communities adopt and scale up sustainable land management practices.
An estimated 2 000 to 3 000 international delegates – including Heads of State, ministers and other high-level dignitaries – are expected to attend COP11.