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African and Chinese Scientists Collaborating to Stop Desertification in Vulnerable Countries

"The edges of the Sahara desert" by TREEAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The 3rd Taklimakan Summit in Xinjiang last month saw experts from Ethiopia and Nigeria joining specialists and representatives from 14 countries for a series of training and field visit experiences on combating desertification deep in China’s largest arid zone.

The Taklimakan desert area is slightly smaller than Germany. While it fades in size compared to the Sahara, Africa’s largest desert which is almost as big as the United States, it offers insights on how to successfully stop the expansion of barren lands. The Sahara is expanding southward at the rate of 131 meters every day and in a decade, the arid land will be covering an extra 500 kilometers if nothing is done to stop its steady 48-kilometer-annual spread.

Since the expansion of the Sahara is a threat not only to the countries on its edges but to all the countries to its south, stopping its encroachment is a matter of urgency. Some African countries have found an unlikely ally, even signing an MOU on developing “desertification control technologies suitable for Africa” based on China’s success in restoring degraded lands

Lessons from the 2nd training workshop on combating desertification for the Great Green Wall (GGW) of Africa are meant to stop its spread and the event highlights China’s contributions to developing countries most affected by land degradation.

China’s mechanical sand control and biological sand fixation measures are particularly impressive. The ecological protection forest projects on both sides of the desert highway have established a solid green barrier and the photovoltaic drip irrigation facilities not only reduce carbon emissions but also contain water; people use biodegradable blended nylon to make sand barriers, effectively curbing sand runoff; and the planting of pothos trees is combined with the harvesting of Cistanchis realizing a win-win situation for ecological benefits and economic benefits … …These are very useful for African countries and worth promoting in the Sahel region of Africa,” said Marceline Sanou, Senior Manager, Secretariat of the Pan-African Great Green Wall.

Unfortunately, the Sahara is not the only desert in Africa.

There are more than 20 deserts across the continent that if left unchecked will lead to the loss of two-thirds of Africa’s arable land by 2030 across all countries. Some 46 out of the 54 countries in Africa are vulnerable to land degradation with the 22 most threatened concentrated in the Horn of Africa in Eastern Africa, the Kalahari in southern Africa and the Sahelian region on the southern edge of the Sahara which straddles 11 Sahel countries.

These three regions are home to more than 500 million people who are at risk of losing their crops, livestock and housing as well as wildlife and other biodiversity.

Jia Xiaoxia, a program officer at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), says that even though deserts are generally in a stable situation and fluctuate depending on climate change, land degradation is also caused by human activities like deforestation, poor agricultural practices and other harmful practices that denude the land. 

“When humans interface with the desert in their residential area, there’s sometimes some encroachment or movement of the barren land that may do some damage to the community like sand covering some homes or agricultural land destroying crops,” she added.

In the Horn of Africa region, droughts which are often a precursor of desertification, have become commonplace and each consecutive one is worse than the previous.

Lisa Lim Ah Ken, a Migration Environment and Climate Change Division (MECC) specialist at the International Organization on Migration (IOM) Regional Office in East Africa says, “A drought is a slow-onset climate change but when they become more regular and intense and start lasting longer, then the failed seasons impact livelihoods and the slow erosion of savings over time forces affected families to migrate to find better opportunities.”

Scientists in countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria are seeking lessons from the Taklimakan Desert in Xinjiang, China’s largest arid zone. The arid area is slightly smaller than Germany and fades in size compared to the Sahara.

At the decade-old Sino-Africa Joint Research Center (SAJOREC) at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, Kenyan and Chinese scientists collaborate in diverse fields like agriculture and biodiversity conservation

Since its establishment, the Chinese-funded SAJOREC has undertaken 45 joint research programs mainly focusing on drought mitigation. Other research involves the study of various bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms with the Chinese providing technical support and genetic resources like seeds, tissues and DNA sequences.

Research also involves studying Kenya, Rwanda and Somalia’s geography using satellites which provides data used in disaster response.

For the African-Chinese exchanges, Jia says that using satellites and other means to collect and analyze data is in addition to economic support to some African countries so they can develop more effective strategies to prevent and control desertification. The nature and extent of this funding are however not publicly or easily available.

In West Africa, Nigeria is among the countries involved in growing the 8,000km Great Green Wall (GGW), a hedge of shrubs, trees and other flora along the southern edge of the desert. The GGW was formally adopted by the African Union in 2007 with a plan to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land from Senegal and Mauritania to Djibouti by 2030.

The Sahara threatens ecosystems and livelihoods in Kano State in Nigeria’s arid north. Last year, the African Desertification Control Initiative (ADCI) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences launched a small arid land control project in Gwarmai village in Kunchi to address this challenge in Kano.

ADCI Director, Umar Danladi, said the small project on four hectares of sandy land is meant for research and demonstrations so that farmers can learn skills that will help with combating desertification. 

Danladi, who was among the participants at the Taklimakan Desert Forum in June, added that lessons from the forum are practical. He shares the knowledge he gained interacting with Chinese scientists with locals for ease of replication. However, funding remains a challenge that hinders technology adoption.

The ADCI project particularly struggles with access to water and workers have to fetch it from a different location to ensure the young trees survive. It is not clear if the Chinese would fund any technological upgrades to the project.

Caravanners leading their animals in Djado, a portion of the Sahara desert in Niger in this May 22, 2023 photo. Here an oasis is swallowed by the dunes. [Photo / Souleymane AG ANARA / AFP]

Drivers of Desertification and Consequences on Human and Animal Populations

Harmful human activities on land including agricultural practices like overstocking livestock and overusing water for irrigation, intensive tilling and cutting down trees exacerbate land denudation which is the biggest driver of desertification.

Growing populations are also an additional pressure on land and other natural resources like water as the demand for food, livelihoods, and infrastructure grows.

Danladi said that these pressures come with serious consequences because when deserts onset, the impacts and consequences are not just on ecosystems but also on human and animal populations. 

“Desertification leads to forced migration to the urban areas which puts pressure on urban infrastructure. There is also a prevalence of diseases and conflicts especially between farmers and the herders in search of pasture. Increased unemployment and poverty escalate many other vices which are caused by land degradation directly or indirectly,” he said.

Patricia Kombo is a 2020 UNCCD Global Land Hero from Kenya known for her tree planting activities, especially through actively engaging students in tree planting activities and nature conservation for sustainable living.

She believes that droughts are the most severe and traumatic experiences humanity faces making it hard for many to have adequate food or water since they increase instances of insecurity as people fight for available resources.

What China Did Right to Curb Desertification

To make communities own afforestation programs aimed at combating deforestation, China’s Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program (CCFP) paid farmers for planting trees instead of crops from 1999. A decade later, 9.3 million hectares of cropland were developed into forestland.

China is still implementing its Three North (Northeast, North and Northwest China) Shelter Belt or the “Great Green Wall” project which started in 1978. The program will not end until 2050 and so far more than 66 billion trees have been planted along the 2,800-mile border of northern China’s encroaching desert. This feat will see the world’s forest cover increase by 10%. 

The Belt covers 13 provinces in the north and northwest parts of China and provides a protection system for agricultural land, rangeland, residential areas and water bodies.

To hold back the sand, Jia added that the Chinese utilize precision technology to monitor sand dunes and then stabilize them using biodegradable fiber tubes filled with sand as barriers which slows or prevents the movement of sand on reclaimed land. Indigenous grasses, shrubs and forests are also planted to create a buffer between the desert and the restored landscapes.

Previously, they used rudimentary technology with materials like strawberries or stakes. 

Solar-powered technology is used to pump groundwater for domestic use and for watering young trees. 

To maximize water availability, communities in the belt regions adopted water-saving techniques like stopping sprinkler or flooding irrigation in agriculture and adopting precision irrigation which only waters the plant’s root system and avoids water wastage.

Since bare lands are prone to flooding or dust storms since they have no vegetation, communities in Xinjiang have also adopted the river basin-based integrated management for water, agriculture, forestry, and also rangeland, as well as livestock management.

While countries like Kenya and Nigeria may not have the capacity to provide and dispatch technology on the scale that China has, the success of the partnership between African and Chinese scientists may be pegged on these scientists embracing local solutions and indigenous knowledge to successfully combat desertification.

In Burkina Faso, one of the Sahel countries, indigenous knowledge is working where a traditional farming technique called Zaï is used to help restore soils damaged by desertification and drought.

Pioneered over four decades ago by Yacouba Sawadogo, or “the man who stopped the desert”, Zaï grows crops in pits that trap rainfall. The pits hold the water longer than the soil would in regular planting practices.
Zaï is now used by farmers across a 6,000-kilometre stretch along the Sahara. This means that Chinese expertise and technology could supplement indigenous solutions to combat desertification.

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