HomeOpinion & AnalysisCombating desertification and drought in the context of climate change

Combating desertification and drought in the context of climate change


By Peter Makwanya
JUNE 17 is a day specifically set aside for the commemoration of droughts and desertification in the global context. This year’s theme is, Emphasising the need for an early action to avoid disastrous consequences for humanity and the planetary ecosystems. The emphasis of this year’s theme is about “rising up from drought together”. This emphasises collective and collaborative action and also, according to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) mantra that no one should be left behind.

Of course, as a global community of nations staring at imminent disasters, chief among them drought, every nation needs to engage in proactive disaster preparedness by planning to manage the risks associated with recurring droughts.

Drought is generally defined as an extended period of deficient rainfall relative to the statistical multi-year mean for a region while desertification is viewed as a regime occurring in drylands. Both droughts and desertification can be described as a cancer of the environment and humanity, hence they need to be visualised not in isolation but within the framework and context of climate change.

While in Africa, desertification is common in western and northern countries such as Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Mali (west Africa), Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia (North Africa), Chad, Sudan (central Africa) and Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti (east Africa). Drought is quite inherent and crosscutting, affecting all angles and axis of the African continent, especially the sub Saharan African countries. For this reason, it is important to set aside a special day to reflect and introspect on how best as the world and particularly as Africa, we can rise up to combat the effects of drought that have become a common feature on the continent.

In the context of climate change, adaptation is key in achieving resilience towards hydrological and meteorological/climatological forms of droughts. Droughts exist in many forms but the most common one is the one associated with negative impacts of climate change. Meteorological drought is expressed on the degree of dryness and the duration of the dry period. Lately, the sub Saharan African region has been experiencing moisture stress and dryness for a number of years, ranging from 1992-95, 2000, 2005-8, 2013, 2020/22.

Normally, as nations experience meteorological droughts, then can also and indirectly experience hydrological drought, which is associated with periods of precipitation shortfalls, on the surface or sub-surface water supply. This means that there would be depreciation of water levels affecting the surface area of dams, lakes and reservoirs, including the water table, thereby having negative impacts on the natural ecosystems.

In this regard, for successful adaptation to take place, there should be enough awareness raising on climate information services combined with extensive climate change literacy so that communities will essentially adapt rather than merely cope.

The knowledge of ecosystems-based adaptation is also vital in the sense that risks associated with climate change would be reduced. This is important for affected countries to realise and achieve social, economic and environmental benefits. These can only be achieved as a result of sustainable team-work, mitigation and collaboration against drought.

According to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report of 2021, meteorological drought frequency will double from two to four months over north Africa, the Western Sahel and southern Africa. In short, this is to say, Africa south of the Sahara. This is the result of increased global warming levels compounded by human activities such as deforestation. Deforestations in the sense that, Africa’s emissions are more land-based than burning fossil fuels. As deforestation increases, they will lead to desertification.

There shall also be periods of frequent heavy rainfalls that will culminate in destructive floods and cyclones, causing loss and damage to crops, livestock, property and infrastructure. These heavy downpours have been witnessed in southern African countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and recently South Africa in KwaZulu Natal.

In this view, while adaptation through tree planting is key and instrumental in achieving resilience, southern African countries should tone down on ongoing massive deforestation in Mozambique and Namibia. At local levels, communities should not just plant trees anyhow, as it must start from the schools going upwards to national programmes.

The new impetus in tree planting should be action oriented with entitlements, by naming a tree to the one who has planted it so that there is continuity in monitoring and it also contributes to a sense of ownership. If communities just plant trees and leave them, it will become a cycle of planting trees when the relevant dates approach.

To fight the impacts of droughts and sufficiently adapt against many droughts to come, a culture of water conservation is a prerequisite. Smart farming in the form of drip irrigation should be the way to go. When water is saved, moisture is retained, trees and forests realise sustainable growth and soil erosion is minimised while droughts are tamed. Water conservation should not only be a prerequisite but a culture and a way of positive living for sustainable development and resilience building to take place.

Above all, tree planting is big business, depending on the types of trees grown. Realising the co-benefits of tree planting and water conservation would see communities waving goodbye to entrenched poverty and a cycle of droughts that have become a common feature in our societies.

  • Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on: petrovmoyt@gmail.com

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