Land degradation most critical problem for East Africa

Herders bringing their sheep and goats to veterinarians in Somalia (Credit: Keystone)

Land degradation, which is also accelerating global warming, impacts some 6.2 billion people around the world. Our lifestyle needs to change. But what works for the North is not necessarily the case for the South. Simon Thuo, Founder of the Resilience Center Nairobi, specialized in land management, explains how reliance on less meat by affluent groups in industrialized cities and countries consuming too much grain-fed, imported beef, is not a solution for people in the Great Horn of Africa where subsistence herders and farmers rely on livestock for their survival.

How is the situation regarding land management in the Great Horn region?

The environmental degradation of land is the most critical problem. Firstly, population growth - almost 10 times greater over the last three generations - has had a significant impact. More people are settling insensitive areas of surface or underground rainwater storage, called “water towers” - and this interrupts the water replenishment cycle. Secondly, human settlement has encroached upon fragile areas with loose soils, where unsustainable agricultural practices have ripped away topsoil, laying the land bare. Topsoil and humus is then washed away as silt in rivers and lakes, creating a major environmental problem. How to reverse such degradation is a number one challenge for this region.

Has this region been more severely impacted by climate change?

This region has possibly experienced the highest impact of climate change in the world. This has resulted in many more frequent and intense droughts followed by very heavy rainfalls. Coming on the back of extended periods of aridity- no vegetation and no protection on the top soil - the soils lose a lot of their plasticity. Flood valleys and ravines form, and key infrastructure like roads and bridges are washed away. Previously, after a drought when there was scarcity, we could distribute food through humanitarian aid but with this destruction there is a double problem just reaching affected areas.

What adverse consequences does it have on the lives of peasants and pastoralists?

It destroys livestock and their means of transport to the markets. As a result, hundreds of thousands of livestock are lost, the only asset for the population in the region.

Land degradation also causes tensions between communities?

For thousands of years, the population in these arid and semi-arid areas have migrated for pasture and water. Because of increased population, and land degradation, they have to move further and further to find land and water, increasing the risk of conflicts. Due to changes in the seasonality and regional distribution of rainfall, the pastoralists’ livestock are being decimated because there is not enough grass, and so they are encroaching upon, and invading, the land of peasants. Their livestock would otherwise be decimated because there is not enough grass. Conflicts are escalating and the availability of small arms becomes a major security challenge for everybody.

Do you witness the impact of climate change?

It has really worsened since the 1990s. The war in Darfur is a direct consequence of global warming and changes in rainfall patterns. The Intertropical Convergence Zone - where tradewinds of the northern and southern hemisphere converge - moved south, and along with it rainfall. Pastoralists followed the rain into peasant lands. The battle has become a long-lasting war with no solution because it is completely related to the survival of the different communities. And in most countries of the region, which encompasses Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda, people cannot accept the existing borders because they need to cross territories for their very survival.

What is the difference in solution between African and industrialized countries?

The solution for the West is reducing its carbon footprint. In the Great Horn of Africa, it is the opposite: Half of the children don’t reach their required body weight because of lack of food and particularly protein (40 to 60% are stunted). They need more meat, not less. The second problem is that 90% of the economic livelihood in the semi-arid region is livestock. So, people need meat and its assets for their very basic life. If you take that out of the equation it is a total disaster. The other challenge is that simultaneously this area is facing the worse desertification arising from land degradation.

What are the solutions for this region?

The solutions are mostly related to low-cost but effective environmental technologies applicable at a very local level. Not equipment or machinery-driven, but things that can be handled by communities themselves. Number one is land restoration and appropriate village level technology to improve land productivity. Number two, the conservation of water with rainwater capture “harvesting” at all points. This means reducing rainwater runoff, so that water can percolate into the ground to improve vegetation cover, and improve ground water availability. Other solutions are appropriate grasses and trees that can also provide fodder for the livestock; better conservation of dairy products to reduce bacterial contamination; and improved diets through a combination of protein (fish, milk, meat and plant-based nutrients).