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Fighting the sands of time

A number of cross-sectoral actions are underway to address desertification/land degradation and other pressing environmental issues in the circum Sahara and Sahel zones, such as climate change adaptation, water shortages and biodiversity loss. This African regional framework programme, entitled the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and Sahel initiative (GGWSSI), aims to tackle both environmental and poverty-related challenges.

The GGWSSI programme addresses a critical issue. During drought periods the Sahara has expanded at a rate of almost a square kilometre a year and the United Nations has predicted that without mitigation efforts, some two thirds of Africa’s agricultural land could be made unproductive by land degradation.

Fighting the desert in the Sahara and natural regeneration in the Sahel

Nature however has one answer. Trees act as natural windbreaks against sandstorms, and their roots can help prevent erosion. The Great Green Wall initiative was officially adopted by the African Union (AU) in December 2006 as one of the pillars of a rural strategy which reconciles development and environment.

The concept is much more than just tree planting - it is a set of cross-sectoral actions and interventions aimed at the conservation and protection of natural resources. The GGWSSI aims to halt soil degradation, reduce poverty, conserve biodiversity, and increase land productivity in some 20 countries around the Sahara. It therefore fits well in the Strategic programmes of the AU of combating poverty and ensuring environmental sustainability, and is in line with the objectives of the Environment Initiative of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the Millennium Development Goals on poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

Countries concerned

The initiative will be implemented in the countries of the Sahara and Sahel zones of Africa, mainly: Algeria; Burkina Faso; Cape Verde; Chad; Djibouti; Egypt; Ethiopia; Eritrea; Guinea Bissau; Libya; Mali; Mauritania; Niger; Nigeria; Senegal; Somalia; Sudan; The Gambia; and Tunisia. There are some major challenges however: the geographical size to be covered is immense, and agreements on issues of trans-boundary water management for example will be needed. 

Carrying out the project

Two phases are envisaged: an initial two-year phase devoted to addressing these challenges and the initiation of a knowledge sharing process, followed by a second phase involving a five-year plan to consolidate regional integration, valorise regional potentials and implement structural projects and programmes.

Some €1.4 million in funding was recently made available through the EC Environment and Natural Resources Thematic Programme (ENRTP) to assist countries for the first implementation phase. This follows a joint African Union Commission (AUC)-European Commission (EC) pre-feasibility study on the initiative, which was completed in June 2009.