Experts See Hope for Reversing Drylands Degradation in Africa

By Gilbert da Costa
16 October 2006

An international campaign to draw attention to the huge agricultural potential of the Sahel drylands of Africa is gaining ground, with a recent workshop in Niamey, the capital of Niger. The campaign seeks to capitalize on unexpected success stories in the water-stressed region to galvanize international support.

The more than 65 million people in the countries of the Sahel are among the poorest and least food secure in the world. The region is marked by high rates of deforestation, soil degradation, erosion and population growth.

Niger - like most countries in West Africa's Sahel region - is typically arid, with a very difficult environment for agriculture.

In an effort to reverse the damage, international and non governmental groups - such as the United Nations Committee to Combat Desertification and the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research - are leading a campaign to change long-held pessimism about the continued degradation of arid lands, by reporting unexpected positive successes.

In Niger, for example, agriculture researchers found 250,000 hectares of severely degraded land had been rehabilitated and agriculture productivity restored, during the past two decades.

Lands that have been written off 20 years ago are now productive, despite a strong increase in population.

Researchers say such success stories can help cut through several myths and despair and help dryland countries create a much brighter future.

Saidou Koala, of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics - one of the research institutions involved in the project - says there is an urgent need to help rural communities farm their way out of poverty.

"We did assess some of the land rehabilitation programs that had taken place in the past 20 years and we came to the conclusion that not everything is gloom and doom, because there were successes on the ground," said Koala. "There was a particular study with satellite field survey that showed that thousands and thousands of hectares have been rehabilitated from past implementation programs. And, we came to the conclusion that there were indeed success stories that need to be multiplied, scaled up and out if we want to have the desired impact."

Koala says, despite stereotypes on dryland catastrophes such as famine, conflicts and flight of refugees, the Sahel has a huge potential to become a major agricultural region.

"One of the outcomes of the workshop was to highlight the comparative advantage of the drylands - ample sunshine, fewer pests and diseases and relatively low population; the semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa is relatively less populated," said Koala. "And, the grasslands are there for livestock and some of the ground water resources that are available as well as water from the existing rivers, like the Niger River, which is not being used. So, we have considered that these are powerful assets that can be used to overcome poverty and integrate into dryland areas."

Experts say new efforts to bring degraded farmlands back to productivity to reverse the current threat to food scarcity in the region would require massive funding by the international community.

Koala says a new, more optimistic chapter has opened for drylands in Africa and urged richer countries to join in the campaign.

"We are opening a new, optimistic chapter for the drylands and we strongly believe that, by forming a global coalition to support national and international efforts, we will start making a dent in alleviating poverty and food insecurity in the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa," said Koala. "We are making a special plea to the government and investment partners to take note of the success stories and increase their support and develop new programs that will upscale the success stories."

The Sahel region of Africa is a wide stretch of land stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Horn of African, in the east.