Considered one of the most alarming consequences of climate change, the expanding Sahara Desert is increasingly worrying African states. According to scientists, the desert has expanded by about 10 percent since 1920, due in part to climate change. As the Sahara expands, the Sahel retreats, disrupting fragile ecosystems and societies. Lake Chad, located in the centre of this climatologically conflicted transition zone, serves as a bellwether for changing conditions in the region. Over the last 50 years, the lake has shrunk by 90percent.
Besides the expansion of the Sahara, the Sahel is tremendously hit by land degradation, caused by poor land management practices, overgrazing, population growth, and climate change. To understand the implications of land degradation, it’s sufficient recalling that 80 percent of Africa’s economy relies on a climate-sensitive natural resource base like rain-fed, subsistence agriculture. Effects on the population are alarming: without sufficient productive land to cultivate, a spiraling cycle of poverty has arisen. Over the last decades, land degradation has boosted food insecurity and hopelessness among millions of jobless rural youth, provoking migrations and strengthening radical groups. It is no coincidence that the terrorist group Boko Haram is particularly active in the territories around the shrinking lake. For many, radicalization represents the last hope to survive.
To face the challenges previously mentioned, African states launched an ambitious project: the Great Green Wall. The initiative is supposed to snake from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east of Africa. While it was officially inaugurated in 2007 by the African Union (AU), Africa’s vision of a “Great Green Wall” dates back to the 1970s, when the Sahel suffered from tremendous droughts, and fertile lands became severely degraded. Community leaders and visionary politicians, such as Thomas Sankara, began thinking about a long-term solution and came up with the “Great Green Wall”. However, nothing has been realized in the years since its inception. Only decades later, in 2005, former Nigerian President Obasanjo and Senegalese President Wade put this project on the international agenda.
Eventually, in 2007, the initiative was officially approved by the AU. Currently, the project has been implemented in more than 20 African countries, and more than eight billion dollars have been mobilized. The initiative brings together African countries and international partners, under the leadership of the African Union Commission and Pan-African Agency of the Great Green Wall.
The Great Green Wall is the latest hope for people living near the southern border of Sahara. This African-led project intends to recover Africa’s degraded landscapes and transform millions of lives. Once finished, the wall will be the largest living structure in the world – an 8,000 km natural wonder crossing the entire width of the continent. It must not be seen as a wall of trees to hold back desertification. The term ‘wall’ has been used as a metaphor to underscore the solidarity between African countries and their supporters. Yet, AU has envisioned a mosaic of green lands and sustainable land use practices. By 2030, the project is expected to restore 100 million ha of currently degraded land; sequester 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million green jobs.
According to experts, several restoration approaches are required. One of these in particular empowers the role of farmers: they are responsible for protecting and managing the natural regeneration of forests, croplands, and grasslands. Further, to recover severely degraded zones, large-scale land preparation and enrichment planting is needed, mobilizing high-quality seeds and planting materials. The involvement of communities is crucial: they know best which native species have to be used. Closer to the Sahara, to fight sand encroachment it will be necessary to establish and protect the most adapted native woody and grassy vegetation and implement sustainable management of oases systems.
The international community is strongly supporting the initiative. To mention, the African Development Bank is committed to donate USD 6.5 billion, the World Bank USD 5 billion and the European Commission USD 2.5 billion.
It couldn’t be different. African population is rapidly growing, 200 million rural young people will enter the job market over the next 15 years. Particularly the Sahel is becoming a time bomb. If they have not the possibility to live on and of their land, they will embark on dangerous migration journeys, join terrorist groups, or move to urban cities, enlarging already wide slums. Ignoring the plight of jobless young people in sub-Saharan Africa will only lead to political instability and global insecurity. It is quite obvious then that the Great Green Wall has to be welcome with huge hope and optimism: it is a genuine alternative for people increasingly looking for an escape from hopelessness and desperate poverty.