ASSUMPTIONS, CLAIMS AND ASSERTIONS about Africa being a continent that holds the hope for the global food security of the future have gone largely unquestioned. These have been repeated by many public commentators and development actors who expressed optimism about the forest resources in the south of Equator as if those forests are cast in stone, or as if the environment is in a static situation. They ignore the reality that even the DR Congo, one of the countries holding about the largest swathe of forest, is prone to massive exploitation of the forest resources anytime soon as a result of official corruption, poor enforcement of policies, chronic poverty, livelihoods pressure and survival instincts.
They are not cognisant of the kind of policies now being implemented by Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president that was sworn into office about this time a year ago. Bolsonaro, who – since he assumed office as president – does not hide his disposition towards climate issues, has approved massive deforestation to allow indigenous population directly take advantage of the forest resources. It is a matter of time that any populist government in a poorer country will give unlimited freedom for tree felling on commercial scale, thus opening the hitherto preserved land to harsh weather and direct impact of the sun, rain and erosion.
In Africa, therefore, we urgently need clear, well-informed and realistic scenario thinking about the future of the continent. The general sub-division of Africa into North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa would be an important issue for consideration here. Africa has large expanse of land, part of which –we have been repeatedly told – holds 60 per cent of the world’s arable land. The worrisome aspect of this claim is that a remarkable proportion of the continent is undergoing rapid changes that would render it uncultivable in some years or decades to come. What that means is that the optimism about food security in Africa in the future might be a mirage after all.
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Putting in perspective the issues of deserts in Africa, it is important to examine the locations, sizes, activities within the deserts and the seemingly irreversible changes taking place in and around them. The implications are thus consequential for policy intervention and very urgently too. Parts of Africa have been beleaguered by dry seasons growing hotter and rainy seasons arriving later and with less water for crops and livestock. This is worrisome and something to think deeply, prepare well and take urgent action on. We will take the deserts’ distribution in turn and examine their peculiar features.
There are three big deserts found on the African continent, including the largest desert in the world, the Sahara. The other two deserts are located in the Southern part of the continent, known as Sub-Saharan Africa. In the northern hemisphere, the Sahara is reckoned to be one the world’s hottest deserts, with an estimated area of 3,600,000 square miles, comparable to the size of the United States or China. On the face of it, that expanse is a critical point. The desert covers a large area of North Africa, which account for approximately 31 per cent or one third of the total area of the continent. Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger Republic, some parts of Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Sudan are within the Sahara desert. This arid area, for years, has received annual rainfall below 200 mm, grossly inadequate for agriculture.
If one-third of Africa is occupied by the Sahara, it then becomes easier to project what the food, social and economic security outlook of the continent will be in the future. Take Mali, one of the hottest countries in the world, with 65 per cent of its territory covered by the Sahara. The part that extends to Libya, constituting the Libyan Desert, is one of the driest, the most remote, and the harshest regions of the Sahara, experiencing very little rainfall, and daytime temperatures sometimes reaching up to 50°C especially during the summer.
An online journal, the credit to climate earth journalism, explained the situation in Nigeria vis-à-vis the desert. For the northern Nigeria, a region of vast arable land, capable of feeding the entire country and yet having enough to export, the Sahara Desert is advancing southward at a rate of 0.6 kilometres per year, uprooting millions of its inhabitants in its trail as hitherto productive lands become deteriorated and unfit for farming or human habitation. These put food security as well as economic and social stability in jeopardy. Of great concern is the fact that Nigeria is one of the nations most at risk.
Nigeria reportedly loses at least 35,000 hectares of its arable land annually to desert encroachment in the north, comparable to the size of Lagos State. Climate earth journalism claims further that “the major socio-economic impact of desert encroachment is the loss of farmlands. Immediately following that is migration syndrome because once the local population loses their farmlands, the alternative option for them is to relocate and unfortunately they relocate to urban areas… By moving to the cities, we are creating more mouths to be fed while farm produce is reduced. This is a big problem. No nation can survive if this is allowed to go on.”
What seems to be hitting the nail on the head is the reference to a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which stated that “agricultural production and food security (including access to food) in many African countries and regions are likely to be severely compromised by climate change and climate variability.”
The experiences of some countries are already showing how semi-arid conditions make agriculture challenging and how climate change might shorten the length of growing season, thus requiring intensive irrigation for annual farming activities. It has been projected that yield reductions in some countries “could be as much as 50 per cent by 2020, and crop net revenues could fall by as much as 90 per cent by 2100, with small-scale farmers being the most affected.”
It remains troubling that these aspects of the discussions about Africa are yet to catch the popular attention. According to the online resource, farmers along the border with the Niger Republic, complain that crop yields have reduced by as much as 80 per cent. Farmlands earlier producing over ten bundles of millet now can barely produce two due to ravaging deserts. Sahara desert covers the most of the Northern part of Chad Republic where the rainfall throughout the region is as little as 1.18 inches of rain annually. Attention on food security alone will not be sufficient. Social, political and economic considerations are very relevant. Many countries in the Sahara face real existential dangers that call to question the optimism about a future in which Africa will play a major part in feeding the world.
The earlier the global thinkers, African leaders, policy makers, politicians and academicians get realistic about Africa’s desert challenge – and do something relevant to remedy it – the better for this present and future generation. The time is clicking away and the opportunities might soon slip off. Arresting the expansion of the Sahara and turning more of that expanse of land to cultivable land is a priority that should be pursued with zest and vigour henceforth. Africa cannot afford to continue into the future with the present situation on deserts. Something urgent and concrete has to be done.