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Tackling the effect of desertification

He laments that the story has changed and the situation is worsening. He says the old grazing land is gone and he is forced to…

He laments that the story has changed and the situation is worsening. He says the old grazing land is gone and he is forced to constantly migrate to far distances, sometimes even outside the shores of Nigeria, in search of pasture.

“When I was growing up, the grass used to be as tall as human beings. But now, no water, no grass; cows are emaciated. Some of our cattle have died of hunger.

“Our life is tied to our animals; when they are fat, we get fat, but when they emaciate, we follow suit,’’ he says.

Yusuf is not alone as this challenge confronts most cattle rearers in the northern part of Nigeria due to the advancement of the desert into areas that were once fertile for farming and grazing of cattle.

Most of Northern Nigeria is affected by the problem of desert encroachment due to its arid and Sahelian topography.

The worst hit are the 11 states of Kano, Yobe, Adamawa, Katsina, Bauchi, Borno, Kebbi, Sokoto, Jigawa, Gombe and Zamfara, known as front line states.

In these states, many farmers have lost their farmlands to desert encroachment.

Experts define desertification as the “degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid lands. Such land degradation occurs due to persistent reduction of biological and economic productivity”.

According to them, desertification takes place when the tree and plant cover that binds the soil is removed or when trees and bushes are stripped away for firewood and timber.

We also find desertification when land is cleared for cultivation using unsustainable methods or when animals eat away grasses and erode topsoil with their hooves.

It also occurs when intensive farming depletes the nutrients in the soil, as well as when wind and water erosion aggravate the damage, carrying away topsoil and leaving behind a highly infertile mix of dust and sand.

The menace also occurs following prolonged period of drought which can take a severe toll on the land as well as when conflicts become prevalent, forcing people to move into environmentally fragile areas and put undue pressure on the land.

Desertification also results when mining cause damage to land.

As for the impact of desertification, experts say that the most devastating is its disruption of the natural cycle of water and nutrients. It also intensifies strong winds and wildfires.

Studies also reveal that the effects of dust storms and the sedimentation of water and streams can be felt thousands of kilometres away from where the problems originated.

The cost of desertification is high, and not just in economic terms as it constitutes a threat to biodiversity.

It can lead to prolonged episodes of famine in countries that are already impoverished and cannot sustain large agricultural losses. Poor rural people, who depend on the land for survival, are often forced to migrate or starve.

Desertification does not only mean hunger and death in the developing world, it also increases the threat to global security for everyone.

War, social disorder, political instability and migration can all result from scarce resources.

People who live in dry lands have also been found to be far behind the rest of the world in human well-being and development indicators.

They suffer from the poorest economic conditions and have the highest average infant mortality rates due to high temperatures. The lack of water also results in diseases.

But just as desertification can cause poverty, poverty can also cause further desertification.

Ibrahim Duguri, a 31-year-old farmer from Alkaleri Local Government Area of Bauchi State, recounts his experience: “Our farmland has been taken over by sand dunes, while other farmers don’t have enough water to farm.

“People living in the affected areas are relocating to enable them farm for food and find pasture for their cattle. The situation has rendered us poor as many have lost their means of livelihood,’’ he says.

Since the Great Drought in the Sahel region between 1968 and 1973, which badly affected the northern part of Nigeria, the issue has received increased domestic and global attention, even as desertification has progressively increased over the years.

Four United Nations agencies — the UN Convention to Combat Desertification; UN Environment Programme (UNEP); United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) — have been working on the issue.

Their findings show that about two billion people, worldwide, are

potential victims of the effects of desertification.

The research also reveals that desertification contributes to internal displacement and international migration of people, even as 40 per cent of the earth’s land — 5.2 billion hectares — is threatened by the problem.

The UN findings further show that about 12 million hectares worldwide is lost to land degradation annually, while an estimated 42 billion dollars is also lost in incomes, due to desertification.

In Nigeria, statistics provided by the Ministry of Environment indicate that the current rate of desert encroachment is 0.6 km per annum.

Professor N. M. Gadzama of the University of Maiduguri, explained this in a presentation titled “Desertification and its Effects on National Security and Resource Use Conflict’’.

Gadzama’s paper was delivered at the 2008 World Desertification Day celebration in Bauchi on June 17, 2008.

“Desertification-threatened states of Nigeria constitute 43 per cent of Nigeria’s total land mass and 38 per cent of the total land mass of the country is critically decertified. The forest cover is now less than 10 per cent,” he said.

With these frightening statistics, the question is how are the three tiers of government collaborating to combat the menace of desertification and mitigate its impact?

Last year, the Federal Government, in collaboration with Bauchi State Government, organised the National Desertification Summit in commemoration of 2008 World Desertification Day with the theme “Combating Land Degradation for Sustainable Agriculture’’.

The summit was aimed at putting the issue of desertification on the front burner of national discourse with a view to taking proactive measures to check the menace.

The summit observed a very poor level of awareness among stakeholders, including the policy makers, on the causes, impact and strategies for combating desertification.

Consequently, it recommended the creation/establishment of a specialised institution with specific mandate to address the issue of drought and desertification in the 11 front line states.

It also suggested that a percentage of the states’ budget should be allocated to combating desertification.

Prior to the summit, the Federal Government had been working on a project known as the “Green Wall Sahara Initiative (GWSI)” which aims at recovering the ecosystem in the affected areas.

Initiated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo at a continental meeting in Libya in 2005, the project is conceived to run across Africa’s Sahel region from Mauritania in the North-West, to Djibouti in the North-East.

Mr Nkem Ononiwu, the former Director, Drought and Desertification, in the Ministry of Environment, said that “desert-to-food programme’’, a component of the project, would restore the fertility level of the soil and reclaim it for food and various other economic activities including tourism.

“Green wall is designed in such a way that desertification is curtailed and you manage the desert in such a way that you restore the land to its fertility level and reclaim it for food,’’ Ononiwu said.

He described Green Wall Sahara Programme as the best strategy in desertification management in the arid north as it has the capacity to provide food both for local consumption and for export.

“Through fostering the establishment of agro-allied and dairy industries, it will create massive employment, eco-tourism and wealth in the belt,’’ he said.

Chief Chuka Odom, the former Minister of State for Environment, Housing and Urban Development, says the establishment of shelterbelts in the Green Wall Nigeria project would be a “potential tool for curbing poverty in the arid states’’.

He says that combating desertification and land degradation in the arid states is a collective responsibility and also calls for partnership with all interest groups within and outside the country.

But with the “Desert to Food Programme’’ yet to take off, he says desertification continues to induce poverty and land continues to be degraded through human factors such as tree felling, overgrazing and other unwholesome agricultural practices.

Experts say that desertification is not always inevitable because land degradation can be checked and damaged land can sometimes be rehabilitated and its fertility restored.

As nations of the world celebrate yet another desertification day, it is expected that more collective efforts would be mapped out to fight this danger that has remained a grave threat to planet Earth. (NANFeatures)