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Africa Aims To Combat The Effects Of Climate Change By Greening The Desert

In Africa, climate change is exacerbating the desertification of the continent. The Sahara Desert, which covers the majority of northern Africa, is spreading southward at a rate of 30 miles per year.

This spread of desert sands into the semi-arid region of the Sahel is causing problems for the people who live there, as The Ecologist reported last year:

Senegal’s capitol city Dakar sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean on a peninsula. It’s at least a thousand miles to the Sahara desert yet the air today is so thick with sand that the tops of buildings disappear in a sandy haze. It’s the worst sand storm in a year and people here are worried that climate change will cause these events to be more common. Seasons are shifting across the region. In Senegal the rainy season used to start in July or August but now it doesn’t start until September. Decreased rain — along with over grazing of land — is causing an increase in deserts across the Sahel.

Desertification affects about 40 percent of the continent, and according to the U.N., two-thirds of the continent’s arable land could be lost by 2025 if the trend continues unabated. Africa has recognized these threats and has turned to projects that re-vegetate the land in hopes of holding off the spread of the desert.

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One initiative, the Great Green Wall, aims to battle desertification by planting a wall of trees and vegetation from coast to coast across the continent, below the southern edge of the Sahara. Once completed, the wall will be 4,300 miles long and 9 miles wide and will cut through 11 African countries in the Sahel region of the continent. The plan was approved by the African Union in 2007, and in July 2008, the 11 countries in the wall’s path began planting their trees.

The trees and vegetation are planted to prevent erosion and slow wind speeds, but they also provide fruit and vegetables for Africans in a region that is in the midst of a food crisis — according to the United Nation’s Food Program, as many as 11 million people in the Sahel don’t have enough to eat. In Senegal, which is farthest along in the planting of the wall, 2 million trees are planted each year during the rainy season. Already Senegal has been able to reap the benefits of the fruit and vegetables grown along the wall, but it will take some time to assess its effectiveness at combating desertification — it will be another 10 to 15 years before the wall becomes a forest.

A similar project aims to create green jobs through re-vegetation efforts in Africa. The Sahara Forest Project plans to develop large-scale desert oases in northern Africa using concentrated solar power, outdoor vegetation, saltwater greenhouses and algae cultivation. Using solar-powered desalinization processes, the greenhouses would grow produce such as tomatoes and melons, and algae cultivation centers and would produce “bio-fuel ready” algae oils. The project is supported by the U.N. and has established a pilot facility in Qatar.

As well as facing the threats of desertification, many in Africa also struggle to power their homes — Africa’s electricity prices are among the highest in the world. Africa has been historically slow to invest in renewable energy, parts of the continent are slowly emerging as markets for solar power, helping to mitigate climate change as well as adapt to its effects. This February, South Africa began construction on two 50 MW solar photovoltaic plants in the Northern Cape province. Algeria plans to install 1.22 GW of photovoltaic solar power by 2022, and in Ghana, a solar installation set to begin this year will provide power to more than 100,000 homes.