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Special Report on Desertification in Nigeria: The sun eats our land

By Hugo Odiogor

That land is one of the most cherished resource of Nigeria is a fact often taken for granted to the extent that not much care is given to adverse conditions that affect this vital resource either through man made causes or natural phenomena. Land is a symbol of identity in most African countries, a means of cultural affiliation, social and economic survival.

This means that people tend to go into extinction when they are deprived of this resource. The resourced endowment associated with land makes attractive for human settlement, while that absence of same makes such land uninhabitable. It is against this background that we must appreciate the magnitude of the degradation of the land through the impact of climate change and man made causes in various parts of Nigeria.

The Northern part of Nigeria is endowed with a large expanse of arable land that has over the years proved a vital resource for agriculture and other economic activities. But the Sahara desert is advancing south wards at the rate of 6.0 percent every year.

Consequently, Nigeria loses about 350,000 hectares of land every year to desert encroachment. This has led to demographic displacements in villages across 11 states in the North. It is estimated that Nigeria loses about $5.1billion every year owing to rapid encroachment of drought and desert in most parts of the north.

Dr. Newton Jibunoh, is the founder of FADE, a Non Governmental Organisation that is committed to the Fight Against Desert Encroachment. The 67 year-old agronomist who crossed the desert in 1965 on his way to go to England for his studies, has embarked on personal journeys across the Sahara Desert, recently led a group of professional called the Desert Warriors to Agadesh in Niger Republic.

The Desert Warrior was drawn from the Banking sector, Lawyers, Journalists among others, as part of their contribution to sensitize Nigerians about the negative impact of Climate Change. According to him, with the fast desertification of some areas in the northern part of the country, by 2015 larger part of Nigeria will become dessert thus the Dessert Warrior reality show to combat climate change and global warming.

Dr Jibunoh observes that beyond the effects of erosion and demographic pressures on land, deforestation is another primary cause of desertification. According to him, “Wood is an important source of fuel for poor northern populations who do not necessarily realise the consequences of cutting down trees. It is essential, therefore, to limit the extent of deforestation and to replant trees but such projects are impossible without the support of local communities”.

According to him, the threat of desert encroachment and desertification are assuming frightening dimension especially as it affects the nation’s arable land mass.  This has become a source of threat to food production; it is equally believed that the hostile impact of climate change in Northern Nigeria poses serious threat to national security and poverty alleviation strategies in the country as those mostly affected are the most vulnerable in the security that dwell in the villages ravaged by this scourge.

Desertification can be defined as a phenomenon of impoverishment of the terrestrial ecosystem under the impact of adverse weather and population activities. The progressive deterioration of the fertile land and loss of its productive capacity renders it unsuitable for human and animal habitation.

The United Nation defines desertification as “the delimitation or destruction of the biological potential of land which can lead to desert-like conditions” (Nairobi, Kenya, 1997). It further described “desertification as a process that results after a sand storm.”  Poor rainfall, overgrazing and over utilisation of available piece of land are also major causes of desertification. Expectedly, this creates crisis of human survival, social and economic development.

It has been discovered that the Sahara Desert is advancing southwards at the rate of 0.6 kilometres per annum resulting in the loss of about 55% of land mass to the desert and displacement of farmers in villages of the affected states. Experts believe that an estimated area of 75 million hectare of land in the North, is threatened by desertification.    This portends grave danger to food security in Nigeria and in the ECOWAS sub-region.

The origin of desert encroachment
There are no clear cut explanations of the origin of desert encroachment, but it is generally attributed to demographic activities especially felling of trees, burning of bushes for farming, adverse climatic conditions such as erosion of the surface of the earth through wind storm and movement of sand dunes.

It is important to note that Nigeria is not the only country affected by desert encroachment and desertification. According to Sunny Antai, countries in the sahel region Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote D’voire, the Gambia, Libya, Egypt, Morroco, Tunisia, Sudan, Mauritania etc. Namibia and South Africa, the United States, Canada, Mexico are also affected. The countries in the Arabian peninsula and Israel are affected as well. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has fought desert to a stand still and has succeeded in increasing its cultivatable land area significantly by using what is called the ‘Consolidated Solar Power Technology’.

As mentioned earlier, the northern region experiences low rainfall and high temperature that rises up to 45 degrees Celsius. According to Chief Jibunoh,” the heat in the desert can be as high as 150 degree Celsius every day thereby baking the sand to dusty patches since there is no vegetation to check the heat. Over time, the wind storm lifts and scatter the sand around. The sandstorm could be as high as 30 – 40meters.”

It must be noted that Nigeria has in the past 30 years, witnessed a gradual but consistent encroachment of drought and desertification arising, from the disappearance of large body of water and high activities of dry sand in the Northern part of the country. This situation is further aggravated by destruction of arable and fertile land areas through tree felling for energy, bush burning and overgrazing by herdsmen. According to Nigeria’s National Meteorological Agency the rainy season in the north has dropped to 120 days from an average of 150 days when compared with the frequency of rain fall 30 years ago. The result of this is the drop in crop yields by 20 percent.

As at today, it is estimated that over 70 million Nigerians have a direct and indirect experience of the negative impact of drought and desertification. Experts estimate that the affected 11 states namely: Adamawa, Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Katsina, Jigawa, Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara are under intense pressure from the attack of climate change. No fewer than 42 million people are believed to have been affected by this development. We have witnessed the gradual disappearance of fertile lands and steady decline in food production, a clear example is  the Hadejia Jamma’are Kamodongou drainage system in Yobe state. Lake Chad, the largest body of Inland Fresh water is also heavily devastated by desertification which has come with enormous economic loses and negative impact on the people within the vicinity.

The socio-economic impact of desertification

Perhaps the best way to understand the impact of drought and desertification can be seen in the massive death of persons, cattle and vegetation in Northern Nigeria and other parts of West African countries in 1973-1975, which became an international issue at that time. The Buhari administration in 1984, launched a tree planting campaign in Nigeria as a way to bring to national consciousness to the dangers of rapid depletion of the nation’s vegetation and the need to adopt a more sustainable use of forest resources by replanting trees to recover the fading cultivatable lands owing to desert encroachment. It must be observed that the failure in agriculture production, forces people in the affected villages to migrate to more favourable areas, thereby creating new settlements where they have to compete with the indigenous population for the scarce resources. A careful study of the migratory trend in Nigeria shows that there has been a significant displacement of numerous farming and nomadic population in the nor
thern states especially those states that are ravaged by droughts and desertification.

Yobe State is one of the worst affected areas is in northern Nigeria. “Sand dunes are encroaching at a rate of 30 hectares a year, taking over villages.” Yobe governor, Alhaji Ibrahim Geidam, has been seeking the intervention of the federal government to “act fast and save the lives of millions of people in Nigeria. For instance, it population in eight local government areas are also under severe threat as “surface and under-ground water sources are gradually drying up”.

The State’s Ministry of Environment estimates that more than five million livestock are being threatened by desertification.

Other affected areas include Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi states. The signs of desertification include soil erosion, rain shortages and drought. This threatens the livelihoods of over 55 million people which is equivalent to the combined population of Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania. The forests in northern Nigeria have almost vanished and process of deforestation seems to be moving steadily southwards.

According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization report (2005), Nigeria has the world’s highest deforestation rate of primary forests. Former Minister of Federal Capital Territory and one time governor of Kebbi State, Alhaji Adamu Aliero, believes that the dire poverty in the state borders on desert encroachment. ‘’One noticeable consequences of desert encroachment in the state is its accentuation of poverty, especially on inhabitants along the desert fringes,”
The Fulani population is known to be mostly affected as their herdsmen are constantly seeking new grazing lands as a result of the desert encroachment.

There are also related social and economic consequences arising from forced migrations and resettlement of large population groups in the country, especially as it affects the utilisation of scarce resources. Apart from the frontline states in the north, other parts of the country have also been threatened by drop of the water level caused by the global climate change.


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