(CNN) — The world’s largest desert is growing. In the last century, the Sahara desert has expanded more than 10%now covering an area of more than 8.6 million square kilometers and spanning 11 North African countries.
The Sahel region, a semi-arid belt that acts as a buffer zone just south of the desert, is the hardest hit. Water, already scarce, is becoming more so. The quality of the soil deteriorates and the lack of vegetation causes food precariousness. The UN estimates that some 135 million people who depend on these eroded lands are in danger.
But an ambitious plan, launched by the African Union in 2007, could help curb the hot sands of the Sahara desert and protect communities in the Sahel.
Over the next decade, the Great Green Wall initiative hopes to restore 100 million hectares of land between Senegal in the west and Djibouti in the east, creating a 15-kilometre mosaic of trees, vegetation, grasslands and plants. wide and 8,000 kilometers long.
Having had to deal with insufficient and uncertain funding, the project got a big boost in January: $14 billion in new financing from France, the World Bank and other donors, which contribute nearly half of the $33 billion the UN estimates are needed to reach the 2030 goal.
If fully completed, the wall will be more than three times the length of the Great Barrier Reef, currently the largest living structure on earth.
Advances to stop the Sahara with the Great Green Wall
Nine years from the deadline, there is still a long way to go. To date they have been restored 4 million hectares of land, only 4% of the global target, although this figure rises to nearly 20 million hectares if areas outside the official Great Green Wall zones are counted.
Countries have tried various preservation measures, such as reforestation, agroforestry, terracing, and desert dune stabilization (a technique that prevents the movement of sand long enough for natural vegetation to establish). They are also taking steps to protect the water supply by drilling wells and building irrigation systems.
According to reports, Ethiopia It is the country that has restored the most to date, producing 5.5 billion plants and seedlings, and more than 150,000 hectares of reforested land and 700,000 hectares of terraces, which together represent an area more than five times the london size.
“It has taken us more than a decade to establish the countries and all the strategies,” says Elvis Paul Tangem, coordinator of the Great Green Wall initiative at the African Union Commission. “But now we’ve laid the groundwork, we’ve seen what has worked and what hasn’t, and we’re well on our way to achieving our goals.”
Among the biggest lessons learned is the importance of community collaboration, says Tangem. “We went back to the frontline communities and looked at exactly their needs, and the indigenous knowledge and practices that have been around for centuries,” she adds.
The value of communities
Sarah Toumi, a Franco-Tunisian environmentalist who has been involved in recent fundraising for the initiative, agrees that such an ambitious project will only be possible if local residents fully support it.
“It’s very easy to plant a tree, but it’s not easy to grow it,” he tells CNN. “It’s expensive in arid areas: you have to water it, you have to take care of it, you have to prevent animals from eating it.”
Toumi speaks from her own experience after founding an organization called Acacias for All, whose goal is to reclaim land affected by desertification in Tunisia. The organization has already planted more than 700,000 acacia trees in the region, she says.
Bringing communities into the initiative and demonstrating the value of restoration has been vital to the project’s sustainability. Toumi’s organization helps teach farmers how to harvest the plant’s leaves, fruit and gum so they can make a living from it.
In addition to the Great Green Wall’s goal of restoring the land, there is also the goal of creating 10 million jobs in rural areas. Until now 335,000 have been createdand the cultivation of fruits and forest products has generated US$90 million, according to the UN.
“It’s about creating sustainable livelihoods for people… so they can live in peace in their ecosystems and preserve their traditions and conserve their landscapes,” says Toumi.
As the population grows rapidly in the region, land reclamation combined with job creation is becoming more urgent. Throughout the African continent, More than half of the 375 million young people who will join the labor market in the next 15 years will live in rural areas.
If there is no work for someone in their community due to desertification and land degradation, they are likely to migrate, which could trigger political instability around the world, says Monique Barbut, former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention Combat Desertification and Special Envoy for Biodiversity of the President of France.
By involving 11 countries, the Great Green Wall initiative could help unite African leaders, he adds, “(bringing) that region of the world back to life, which will help us stabilize that part of Africa for political reasons.” .
Tangem agrees, noting “the strong link between natural resource management and political stability in the region.” Once completed, the Great Green Wall could help provide a nature-based solution with global impact.