Building a green wall

Project to plant an 8,000km-long band of greenery has already created 350,000 jobs in deprived Sahel region

Photo by greatgreenwall.org.

— 2 minute read — By Sam Portillo

The African Union is working towards a green wall across the width of the continent in order to combat the expansion of the Sahara. With a target date of 2030, they aim to revitalise 100 million hectares of land.

The world’s largest hot desert has expanded by 10 percent over the last century, pushing the surrounding communities into drought on an increasingly frequent basis, while vast agricultural spaces become infertile.

A longstanding ambition to make the region green again was realised by the African Union in 2007, with ministers from each country agreeing to build a ‘Great Green Wall’ stretching all the way from Senegal on the west coast to Djibouti on the east. If it is completed, it will constitute the largest biological structure on Earth – three times the size of the current leader, the Great Barrier Reef – with some proponents referring to it as a future “wonder of the world”.

It is hoped the wall will help capture additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while giving food security to Sahel communities on the ground. Originally conceptualised as a simple line of trees, the forces behind the project have striven to meet the specific needs of each individual community, helping to restore soil and improve water management as part of a wider effort to lift the region out of poverty.

Senegal, Nigeria and Ethiopia seem to have made the most progress to date, claiming to have restored almost 5 million hectares of land each. Areas which have benefited from the project already have witnessed an increase in humidity, and therefore rainfall, too, ensuring the agricultural spaces they use to grow food and crops remain fertile. The project has also generated £70m worth of revenue through investment and produce sold by local communities.

“The Great Green Wall is a new world wonder in the making. It shows that if we work with nature, rather than against it, we can build a more sustainable and equitable future,” said Amina Mohammed, the UN’s deputy secretary-general.

Despite showing remarkable potential, by some counts, the project is only 15 percent through completion, and by others, just 4 percent. Climatekos, a firm the African Union hired to evaluate the project’s progress, report problems such as a lack of technical support and logistical oversight as obstacles to the wall’s completion.

“One of the main problems we had was to try to track the project because there is not a good monitoring and evaluation system in place,” said a research analyst at the firm.

There is also vast variation in results across different countries. Ethiopia, who managed to mobilise their resources quickly and get a head start on the project, claims to have planted a remarkable 5.5 billion seedlings. In comparison, Chad, a similar sized country, reports a tally of just 1.1 million. Further throwing the success of the project into question, the African Union has been unable to effectively monitor how each country spends its funding, leaving some to worry whether the seedlings have been planted as planned, or even at all.