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Years of low rainfall and poor agricultural practices, such as livestock overgrazing, have transformed the Sahel region of Africa into a semi-arid desert. The lack of fertile soil along the almost 8,000-kilometer stretch extending east-west across the breadth of the continent from Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Eritrea on the Red Sea coast, is making it increasingly hard for the residents, who depend on farming, to survive.
In 2007, to try to combat the increasing desertification of the area south of the Sahara, leaders from 11 African countries came up with the radical idea of planting a “Great Green Wall” of trees on the edge of the desert. Though the idea sounded good on paper, it was not easy to implement given the dry and rocky landscape. Also, many areas of the proposed “wall” had no residents, which meant there was no one to look after the saplings.
But the inhabitants of what are some of the poorest places on the planet were not easily deterred. They made the “impossible” possible by finding cheap and efficient ways to restore their land using simple water harvesting methods and planting drought-resistant acacia trees and other hardy native species. In addition to acting as windbreaks and reducing soil erosion, the tree roots help retain moisture, filling the dried out wells with fresh drinking water. The shade from the tree canopy helps maintain humidity, reducing the water needed for the crops, while the decomposed fallen leaves enrich the soil.
Though the “Great Green Wall” is now more a metaphor than an actual tree wall, the impact of the hodgepodge of replanting projects it inspired has been significant. Since 2007, Ethiopia has restored 37 million acres of degraded land while Nigeria has reclaimed 12 million acres. In Senegal, 11 million trees have created 931 miles of firewalls and helped restore 61,000 acres of land. The residents also see animals like antelopes and hares, as well as birds, that had disappeared for over 50 years, slowly starting to return.
The ecological benefits have corresponding economic perks. Where money and produce were scarce, and conflicts over dwindling resources were becoming more frequent, jobs and food security are now a possibility. Many women have been employed working in gardens that can now grow in the improved soil conditions, and kids can attend school instead of spending the day searching for water.
Though significant progress has been made, the “Great Green Wall” is still just about 15 percent underway. Estimated to cost about $8 billion, the project, funded by the World Bank, United Nations, African Union, and the UK Botanical Gardens, is not expected to be completed until 2030. However, the effort and hefty price are well worth it. With the trees come food, jobs and hope for residents, who currently face very bleak futures. Many also hope that when complete, this new “Wonder of the World” will slow the alarmingly high numbers of Africans trying to migrate to Europe, aboard unsafe rafts, in search of a better life.
Resources: theguardian.com,BBC.co.uk, greatgreenwall.org