Let us arrest desertification
DESPITE its indisputable abundance of water, Lesotho, like the rest of Africa, is undergoing serious desertification particularly in the southern districts and the hinterland where, ironically, the sources of our major rivers lie. Thankfully, Lesotho is a signatory to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) that was concluded in 1994 and came into force in 1996.
The Wikipedia encyclopedia defines desertification as a type of land degradation in which a relatively dry land region becomes increasingly and, typically losing its bodies of water as well as vegetation and wildlife. It is caused by a variety of factors such as climate change and other human activities. Desertification is a significant global ecological and environmental problem.
Considerable controversy still exists over the proper definition of “desertification” of which there are many, however, the most widely accepted of these is that of the Princeton University Dictionary which defines “desertification” as the process of fertile land transforming into desert typically as a result of deforestation, drought or improper or inappropriate agriculture. In the UNCCD that Lesotho is a signatory to, as alluded to earlier, the text of the treaty has neatly defined it as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions, resulting from various factors, including climate variations and human activities.
In the run-up to the Conference of the Parties (COP) which will be held in Paris, France, from November, 30th to December, 11th, I considered it prudent to endeavour to define what desertification is, its historical background and how best to address it, with particular emphasis on Lesotho, which incidentally again will experience severe drought and water shortage in the next five or so months, despite its abundant water resources. The conference will attempt to come-up with a legally binding and universal agreement on climate from all nations of the world.
Significantly, His Holiness, Pope Francis, published an encyclical called Landato si intended, in part, to influence the conference. The encyclical calls for action against human-caused climate change. In addition, the International Trade Union Confederations has called for the goal to be “zero carbon, zero poverty”, and the general secretary Sharon Burrow has repeated that there are “no jobs on a dead planet”.
The importance of both the encyclical and Ms Burrow’s calling cannot be underesti- mated as both the Holy Father and the international trade unionist command huge following around the globe.
Historically, the world’s most noted deserts have been formed by natural processes interacting over long intervals of time. During most of these times, deserts have grown and shrunk independent of human activities. Paleodeserts are large sand seas now inactive because they are stabilized by vegetation, some extending beyond the present margins core deserts, such as the Sahara, the largest hot desert on the planet.
Since Biblical times, desertification has always played a significant role in human history, contributing to the collapse of several empires, such as Carthage, Greece and the Roman Empire, as well as causing displacement of local populations. Historical evidence shows that the serious and extensive land deterioration occurring several centuries ago are in and regions that has three epicentres, namely, the Mediterranean, the Mesopotamian Valley and the loessical plateau of China, where population was dense.
Research indicates that dry-lands occupy approximately 40-41 percent of the Earth’s land area, are home to more than two billion people, slightly above a third of the earth’s seven billion population. It has been estimated that some 10-20 percent of dry-lands are already degraded, the total area affected by desertification being between six and 12 million kilometres, that is about one to 6 percent of the inhabitants of drylands live is desertified areas, and that a billion people are under threat from further desertification.
A recent report by the United Nations, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Agency, in assessing the status of the world’s deforestation observes: “The world has lost forests the size of South Africa in 25 years due to growing global populations and increased demands for food and land. It observes forests give protection against climate change because trees absorb carbon dioxide. Deforestation has been blamed for worsening landslides and floods in areas of the world that are prone to these natural disasters”.
At home in Lesotho, just a few kilometres outside Maseru, and elsewhere around the countryside lush green forests have been all but decimated due to deforestation.
This phenomenon that occurs throughout Lesotho denies our beautiful countryside its natural pristine beauty and environmental value. It deeply pains me whenever I see how our country’s pristine beauty has degraded considerably over the years. It is an unedifying sight indeed.
Causes of desertification in Lesotho are not unique to our beloved country, however, here are some of the most common. This is driven by a number of factors alone or in combination, tillage for agriculture, over grazing and deforestation for fuel or construction materials. Vegetation plays a major role in determining the biological composition of the soil.
Studies have shown that, in many environments, the rate of erosion and runoff decreases exponentially with increased vegetation cover. Unprotected, dry soil surfaces blow away with the wind or are washed away by flash floods, leaving fertile lower soil layers that bake in the sun and become an unproductive hardpan. Poverty also plays a significant role in desertification in Lesotho in that a large percentage of the people of Lesotho live in drylands where they also suffer poor economic and social conditions.
This situation is exacerbated by land degradation because of the reduction in productivity, the precariousness of living conditions and the difficulty of access to resources and opportunities.
A downward spiral in Lesotho, like the other least developed countries, is created by over-grazing, land exhaustion and over-drafting of groundwater in many of the marginally productive regions of the country due to overpopulation pressures to exploit marginal drylands for farming.
There is also the added disadvantage of lack of political will that inevitably leads to decision-makers who are understandably averse to invest in arid areas with law economic potential. This absence of investment contributes to the marginalization of these areas. When unfavourable agro-climate conditions are combined with an absence of infrastructure and access to markets, as well as poorly adapted production techniques and an underfed and uneducated population, most such areas are excluded from development.
Desertification often causes rural lands to become unable to support the same sized populations that previously lived there. The end result is massive migrations into the cities, urban areas, out of rural areas. Maseru and Maputsoe are two cases in point and these large urban centres simply cannot cope with the massive influx of thousands of new inhabitants. This again calls for political will, leadership and grassroots education, which sadly lacks presently. A typical manifestation of the massive rural-urban migration are the sprawling massive slums of Maseru and Maputsoe, that put severe strain on the limited urban facilities and resources that sadly cannot cope.
Measures that can be effected to mitigate or reverse the effects of desertification are numerous, however they are also, challenging to implement. One of these is adopting sustainable agricultural practices that are however, financially expensive but at the end of the day are socially and environmentally beneficial. The other measure is to engender political will on the leadership as without it no remedial measure can bear fruits. In addition, there needs to be substantial funding to support land reclamation and anti-desertification programs.
As desertification is recognized as a major threat to biodiversity some countries have developed Biodiversity Action Plans to counter its effects, particularly in relation to the protection of endangered flora and fauna in the affected areas of Lesotho.
Reforestation can also reverse desertification as it is very effective in treating the symptoms. Environmental organisations can work at educating the local population about the dangers of deforestation and employ them to grow seedlings which can then be transferred to severely deforested areas during the rainy seasons.
This can be done by fixating the soil through the use of shelter belts, woodlots and windbreaks. Windbreaks are made from trees and bushes and are used to reduce soil erosion and evapotranspiration. This method was widely used to development agencies in the middle of the 1980’s in the Sahel area of Africa and can equally be employed in Lesotho particularly in those semi-arid areas and those experiencing desertification in the hinterland of the country and the south.
Contour trenching is another effective technique. This involves digging trenches in the soil that are parallel to the height lines of the landscape thus preventing water from flowing within the trenches and causing soil erosion. Stone walls are placed around the trenches to prevent the trenches form closing up again.
Another technique is to enrich the soil and restore its fertility by plants. Laguminous plants that extract nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil, and food crops or trees as grains, barley, beans and dates are very important. People can also use sand fences to control drifting of the soil and sand erosion.
Yet another technique that can be used for reverse desertification would be to restore
grasslands which by their nature store carbon dioxide from the air into plant material. Grazing livestock, usually not left to wander, would eat the grass and would minimize any grass growth while grass left alone would eventually grow to cover its own growing buds, thus preventing them from photosynthesizing and killing the plant.
A method proposed to restore grasslands uses fences with many small padlocks and moving herds from one paddock to another after a day or two in order to mimic natural grazers and allowing the grass to grow optimally.
On the face of it these techniques are labour intensive, need a lot of public education and political will but in the end they can go a long way in arresting the scourge of desertification that looms large over Lesotho’s fragile economy and agricultural sector.
If not arrested holistically and urgently desertification is likely not in the too distant future have a huge negative impact on the economy of Lesotho.
Further, Lesotho is blessed with abundant water resources that can be harnessed for commercial, domestic and irrigation purposes if properly utilized. However, let me hasten to conclude that lest I be interpreted to be alarmist, Lesotho is not yet a desert or semidesert but it is edging perilously close.