Trees against Drought
Currently the countries in the Horn of Africa are facing one of the severest droughts in over six decades. The UN office for the coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) predicts that at least 12 million people in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Uganda and Dijbouti face chronic food shortages and are in need of large scale humanitarian assistance.
Aid agencies are crying out for more permanent strategies to combat future food shortages caused by droughts. Droughts are commonplace in the sub-Saharan region, however in recent times due to climate changes farmers are finding it more and more difficult to predict when or if the rainy season will begin. The increasingly erratic weather in this region is further compounding the real need for longer term strategies to enable these populations to cope when shocks such as droughts or failed harvests occur.
So what are some possible long term drought preventing or alleviating strategies? NGO’s have been working in the area for sometime advising farmers on which crops to plant. In arid drought prone regions, crops like millet, sorghum or pigeon peas are being encouraged as they are more resilient in the face of water shortages. Other methods being endorsed are to install rain harvesting tanks and repair existing water sources and drip irrigation schemes which ensure water is directed to the root of the crop to avoid the loss of excess water.
The current issue of Farming Matters focuses on Trees and Farming. It explores various projects and programs documenting examples of Agroforestry around the world. The current crisis in the horn of Africa prompted me to explore the link between deforestation and drought and how Agroforestry can be used against or to survive the adversity induced by drought. “Trees are significantly more resilient to such conditions than the annual crops that most farmers grow” writes Dov Pasternak in his article “Keep Africa covered”. The benefits of trees are well documented. Trees help buffer moisture conditions in the atmosphere and can help to safeguard against droughts in a variety of ways. Their leaves help shade the ground below, this reduces the temperature and slows the rate of moisture evaporation from the surrounding soil. Leaf litter acts as a type of barricade which slows down water runoff from the land surface giving it more chance to seep in and replenish the groundwater system.
Tree roots are also of huge benefit too. Not only can they tap into moisture that lies deep in the ground, helping add more water to the local cycle, tree roots also hold soil in place, keeping it to a certain extent from eroding away. This is a particularly helpful attribute of trees existing in drought susceptible conditions. And of course, as trees grow, they transpire, releasing water vapour into the atmosphere, both cooling the atmosphere and creating new sources of vital rainwater.
However despite the crucial value of the presence of trees to these arid regions, this area like many parts of the world has lost significant percentages of its forests. Due to factors like population expansion, lack of land ownership and need for money and fuel, the deforestation rate in Africa is four times the worlds average.
Of course there are still many parts of the region where the importance of trees is recognised and where they are depended upon for survival. In the Western Lowlands of Eritrea, semi-nomadic farmers are dependent on the management collection and processing of forest products as well as crops and livestock. In times of drought or war times they depend on the harvesting and selling of the leaves from the Dom Palm. They however always take care not to overcut this valuable resource recognising its importance to their survival particularly in difficult times and to the poorer in the community. You can read more about this example of North-eastern African Agro forestry in the “Coping with Disaster” edition of farming matters.
Farm Africa is currently training farmers and locals in Ethiopia. The training was designed to help them identify which non-timber forest products they could most successfully use as the basis for sustainable businesses. Each group then shared their findings with the other participants and together they were able to review the potential markets for cardamom, pepper and honey. The World Agroforestry Centre has been working on arrangements between farmers and communities in exchange for environmental services. A pilot study in Malawi where farmers received financial rewards for planting trees is an example of such an initiative.
However despite the many innovative schemes taking place both through locals and organisations there are many obstacles standing in the way. Governments unfortunately do not yet see conserving trees as a main priority. Forests occupy fertile land with high water tables, which is ideal for irrigated agriculture of cash crop.
Poverty and political instability in many countries that lie in the horn of Africa make long term planning difficult. This region has been long since known as one of the most conflict-driven areas of the world. Also a considerable problem in Africa compared with other areas losing large amounts of forests is the lack of land ownership. According to the Rights and Resources Initiative, less than 2% of Africa's forests are under community control, compared to a third in Latin America and Asia. These are all very serious hurdles standing in the way of a move towards more sustainable ways of life needed to try to prevent near famine situations continually arising.
Perhaps the desperate reality of this current drought induced crisis is the push that governments need to start planning longer term strategies and getting behind projects and schemes to alleviate drought inducing conditions already being implemented on a small scale. With government support more large scale initiatives can be executed. Deforestation is one of the factors making the climate drier. Trees help bind the land, preserve vital biodiversity, retain and funnel water and prevent desertification. There needs to be a realisation amongst those in charge that though timber from trees and the lands gained through deforestation are valuable in the short term, in the long term fight against drought, trees need to be recognised as some of Africa’s most vital allies.
- Keep Africa covered, Farming Matters - Trees and farming, June 2011
- Farmers benefit by providing environmental services, Farming Matters - Trees and farming, June 2011
- Drought in east Africa the result of climate change and conflict, Guardian, 4 July 2011
- Community forest management, Farm Africa
- Deforestation 'faster in Africa', BBC News, 26 May 2009
- Trees for semi-nomadic farmers: a key for resilience, LEISA Magazine, April 2001
Text: Ellen Naughton