Tide turning on desertification

Researchers say landlocked Niger on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert has bucked a regional trend of losing agricultural land to the desert, but warn that unless the country’s population boom is brought under control the gains will be short-lived.

Using simple techniques such as planting trees and preserving natural vegetation, teams of workers have already rehabilitated three million hectares of severely degraded land, according to the Nigerien government. Surveying in parts of southern Niger has found between 10 and 20 times more trees in 2005 than 30 years earlier.

This month, the government launched the second phase of the campaign, targeting 1,530 hectares of dunes, which threaten to bury valleys and roads. The plan will give work to more than 60,000 people in the cash-strapped country, officials said.

While a total of 750 hectares of sand dunes had already been improved, the government plans to restore a further 15,000 hectares of degraded lands and 1,500 hectares of oasis water, for a total of 1.5 billion CFA (US $2.8 million) each year.

Desertification is mainly caused by human activities and climatic variations. It occurs because dry-land ecosystems, which cover over one third of the world's land area, are extremely vulnerable to over-exploitation and inappropriate land use.

Over 250 million people worldwide, from Mongolia in Asia to the southern tip of Africa, are directly affected by desertification, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

The aid NGO Oxfam (UK) has warned that climatic changes could put 60 millions Africans at risk of hunger by the 2080s.

Impressive results

"Niger is a perfect example of what national policies can achieve for reforestation. Patches of lands have already been restored and more is coming," said Laminou Attaou, director of the Niger’s Environment Ministry.

The tree-planting project has taken on a political aspect in Niger, as it is backed by the country’s president, Mamadou Tandja.

Niger’s prime minister, Hama Amadou, who has already announced he will contest the presidency in elections scheduled for 2009, favours large-scale irrigation and ranching projects as a solution to the country’s grave economic problems. Increased investment in irrigation featured strongly in the 2006 budget, and has also been backed by the president.

Nonetheless, independent experts agree that the results of the anti-desertification campaign have been impressive.

"The [desertification] phenomenon is under control in our survey areas, so we can say now that it is no more a threat but an issue that farmers can control and improve," agronomist Mahamane Larwanou, at the Nigerien Agronomics Research Institute (IRAN), told IRIN.

An official at Agrhymet, a Niamey-based organisation of the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), said "the region is recovering sharply; the trend is confirmed in all the countries, and particularly in Niger".

Local enthusiasm

Niger’s farmers are also enthusiastic about the development.

"Thanks to the increase in the vegetation coverage, we are not dependent on others any more," said Idder Addo, a 60-year-old farmer from Batoudi, near Tahoua. "We can do vegetable and fruit plantations that bring us money."

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that production of onions, an important cash crop produced in southern regions of the country and sold in neighbouring Nigeria and Benin, has tripled in the last 20 years, reaching 270,000 tonnes in 2005.

"Farmers have diversified their revenues and are now in control of their financial situation," said Germaine Ibro, an IRAN researcher who surveyed the economic and social impact of the rehabilitation process in the Tahoua and Zinder regions.

Ibro said that women particularly benefited.

"Women can spend more time developing crops, they have more money, and then they can do other businesses such as livestock and forestry. That means their children can go to schools and their land is more valued," he said.

Child mortality has dropped in the region as well, partly thanks to food diversification, Ibro said.

Grave problems continue

While the gains are impressive on paper and have brought much needed relief to some, researchers are sceptical that halting desertification can do much to correct Niger’s poverty-related problems.

"I am very frightened for the future because of the galloping birth rate in Niger," said Chris Reij, a geographer and specialist in the Sahel at Vrije University in the Netherlands.

Niger has the highest birth rate in the world, with women bearing on average eight children each.

According to official data, Niger's population will rocket to 78 million by 2050, compared with 12 million in 2005.

"Strong population growth will lead to an overuse of natural resources and a lower productivity rate of the earth and aquatic ecosystems," Reij said.

Niger is still ranked the poorest country in the world, with the worst health and development problems among all 177 countries included in the United Nations ranking of human development, the Human Development Index.

Seventy percent of Nigeriens rely on subsistence agriculture for survival. But shrinking harvests because of non-desertification related factors, including irregular rainfall, natural disasters and soil degradation, mean the mud silos for storing food that dot Niger’s otherwise stone-age landscape are rarely filled these days.

Nearly 12 percent of Niger's children under five years of age were suffering from malnutrition in 2005, according to a UN survey in May.

One in five Nigerien children still dies before reaching age five, usually because poor nutrition has made the child vulnerable to preventable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhoea. Those who do live on are likely to suffer a debilitating disease and to die before age 45.