1. Built environment
August 22, 2018updated 29 Jul 2021 11:52am

Africa’s Great Green Wall: 8,000km of trees that could save millions of lives

If Boris Johnson cared for much outside of Westminster, he would probably love Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative. As a massive infrastructure project that will ultimately mean there are fewer migrants, it really does tick boxes for the former foreign secretary.

Launched in 2007, the scheme was originally “only” supposed to plant a massive, contiguous band of trees; 8,000km long and 15km wide – stretching from Senegal on Africa’s west coast to Dijbouti on its east. This was designed to stop the steady southward creep of the Sahara, which is threatening the livelihoods of millions.

But as the project developed it was realised that this alone would not be enough. And so the “Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative” was conceived: an integrated mosaic of initiatives to promote rural development – from micro-investment in local organisations to educational schemes.

The Sahel is the vast ecoclimate that stretches across the continent, marking where the Sahara meets the more lush equatorial climates. Climate change, among other human caused ecological damage, has led to this area becoming environmentally unstable, with droughts and dust storms ever more frequent. This has had disastrous impacts on the lives of its inhabitants.

Desertification occurs as an area becomes increasingly arid and surface vegetation is removed or dies off. The wind takes what little nutrients the soil has left and so the amount of arable land collapses. This is known as “soil death”.

Jobs and food supplies are threatened, and in this instability, violence breeds.

Last year, the UN Security Council passed a resolution on the violence around Lake Chad, specifically mentioning the “environmental challenges” faced by the area. The notorious terrorist group Boko Haram operates from within the Sahel, and a 2017 German report warned that chronic droughts are strengthening the group.

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Much of the so-called “migrant crisis” has stemmed from the disappearance of liveable land in this region. As farming jobs become unviable, young men leave to try to find work in the cities and abroad. If they want to tackle migration, European governments should see this not as a problem to be dealt with by African countries, but as something they should also help with.

It is an African Union initiative – so, actually, on reflection maybe Boris Johnson wouldn’t like it, we know how he feels about unions – bringing together 20 African countries. Despite the positive work already completed, the goal of the Great Green Wall is still far off. Yet the planting is providing a huge source of employment, and parts of the land itself are recovering enough to support farming

Walls have entered the political discourse in the worst way possible in recent years, but the Great Green Wall Initiative is bucking this trend.

In the words of Niger’s minister for the environment; “It’s not a wall that separates. It’s a wall of hope, a wall of life”.

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