The Great Green Wall goes forth

This is a fascinating idea. Spearheaded by Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade (he of the infamous African Renaissance statue), African leaders agreed last year to the establishment of a “Great Green Wall” across the Sahel and Sahara deserts, and US$120 million of funding has just been approved by the Global Environment Facility. Basically, this is a 15 km strip of trees which would stretch for 7,100km across the continent, East to West, and act as a barrier to desertification.

This is an important step which hasn’t received much coverage. Every year the desert creeps further down the continent, drying up water sources and making previous arable land infertile. This desertification has already had huge consequences – it is often cited as one of the root causes of the violence in Darfur, as it pushed people out of their traditional areas and into places where they had to compete with others for the scarce resources.

If it works – and to receive the backing of the Global Environment Facility it must have scientific merit – the Great Green Wall is a particularly elegant solution, touching on desertification, forest depletion, climate change, African unity, and regional integration all at once. And imagine how good it would look from space.

Nonetheless, implementing this idea is going to be tricky. Trees need attention to grow; specifically, they need water. And water is not something that Sahel and Sahara deserts are famed for. If irrigation is sorted for the project, how exactly are the local population going to react when the trees get lots of water, while their crops wither?

A cross-continental effort, of any kind, also needs lots of cooperation from lots of different governments. And even if the governments are on board, the Great Green Wall is going to pass through some areas where the government just doesn’t have very much control – Eastern Chad and Darfur are the obvious problem areas.

Nonetheless, the breadth of vision of this project must be admired, and it is encouraging that the Saharan/Sahelian countries are taking steps to combat a problem that is only getting more serious.


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