Desertification a threat to Africa’s development


Arable land is vital for countries within and across Africa, both as a key asset for farmers and, together with vegetation, to help store carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

Sadly, desertification, like skin cancer, is posing a great threat to Africa’s vast arable lands, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation ‑ an agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger ‑ estimates that by 2030 Africa will lose two-thirds of its arable land if the march of desertification ‑ the spread of arid, desert-like areas of land ‑ is not stopped.

Henry Neondo, Co-ordinator of the African Alliance of Rangeland Management and Development ‑ a continental movement of organisations in Africa brought together to shape the opinions and advocate for effective policies that will protect rangelands in the light of climate change, drought, desertification and land degradation ‑ believes desertification is at the hub of serious challenges and threats facing sustainable development in the continent of Africa.

“Desertification problems have far-reaching adverse impacts on human health, food security, economic activity, physical infrastructure, natural resources and the environment and national and global security. Therefore, these problems are at the hub of serious challenges facing development in Africa,” said Neondo.

Since most economies of African countries depend on agriculture, added Neondo, desertification is going to ravage them. Sadly, a greater proportion of the desertification problems in rural areas are a result of poverty-related agricultural practices and other land use systems.

“Inappropriate farming systems such as continuous cultivation without adding any supplements, overgrazing, poor land management practices, lack of soil and water conservation structures, and high incidence of indiscriminate bushfires continue to lead to land degradation and aggravate the process of desertification throughout most of Africa,” said Neondo.

Countries within and across Africa have not succeeded in reflecting desertification in their plans for poverty eradiation, food security or development and this is not good for the transformation of their respective economies.

These countries are also, therefore, affected by frequent and severe droughts, which have been particularly severe in recent years in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

In Southern Africa, for instance, about half of the region is semi-arid and for that reason at risk of desertification. More so, the area already transformed into desert-like conditions is not accurately known because uncertainty surrounds the precise definition of a desert.

This lack of accurate data is heightening the desertification crisis in the continent of Africa.

Accordingly, countries in the continent of Africa must document information and use its power to fight land degradation and desertification. They should also increase their efforts to effectively manage arable land and at the same time build resilience to drought.

This also means African countries should have profound information handling mechanisms that positively impact and reach people of all levels. This information should empower citizens to effectively minimise desertification in their respective communities.

Frankly, the continent of Africa has the potential to become a global engine for sustainable development but this can only be attained if political leaders and policy decision makers in the agriculture and development sectors take urgent and necessary steps to stem the rising threat of desertification in the continent.

International organisations must also support African countries and other developing nations to arrest desertification challenges. Because of this, Neondo urged United Nations agencies responsible for environment, desertification and climate change to begin coalescing their actions and programmes in a bid to present a coherent response to this ever increasing problem.

The co-ordinator of the African Alliance of Rangeland Management and Development also believes that to halt desertification in the African continent, the number of animals on the land must be reduced so as to allow plants to regrow.

Furthermore, soil conditions must be made favourable for plant growth by, for example, mulching as this reduces evaporation, suppresses weed growth, enriches soil as it rots, and prevents run-off and hence erosion.

Because desertification threatens food security, African countries need to invest in information and communication technologies such as satellite imaging to help poor rural people cope with the impact of desertification. This is so because cutting edge technologies have the potential to facilitate more effective action on the problem by providing reliable data about weather conditions in regions at risk.

Significantly, policy makers in Africa should think outside the box and come up with effective measures to stop this skin disease, and the only realistic large-scale approach is to prevent desertification through good land management in semi-arid areas.

July 2014
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