Geographies in Depth

Desertification has been devastating for this region of Africa. One nonprofit thinks it has the solution

a picture of a desert landscape in africa

The Azawak region of West Africa has badly suffered from desertification. Image: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Natalie Marchant
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The Azawak region of West Africa has badly suffered from desertification and water scarcity due to the impact of climate change.
  • The water crisis has had a severe impact on both the local environment and the traditional nomad communities who farmed it.
  • NGO Amman Imman is using water harvesting methods to restore ecosystems in order to improve the livelihoods of those forced to migrate.

Once one of Africa’s most lush pastoral lands, the Azawak has badly suffered from desertification and water scarcity due to climate change.

In this region – a Florida-sized desert valley spanning the Mali and Niger border – wetlands, forests and pastures play a significant role in preserving biodiversity and mitigating the effects of climate change, as well as in reducing gender inequality and boosting economic opportunity.

Now, one nonprofit is exploring innovative methods to revitalize the landscape in the Azawak – not just by restoring the environment, but with a wholesale sustainable restoration of the ecosystem.

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Water scarcity in Azawak

Just decades ago, the Azawak had a five-month rainy season which saw abundant pastures, permanent groundwater and large acacia forests, in which wildlife flourished.

Nowadays, its rains last just a month, pasturelands and forests have all but disappeared, and groundwater evaporates quickly, according to Amman Imman.

Desertification has had a devastating impact on the ecosystem and livestock, forcing the local nomadic groups to abandon pastoral life and migrate into villages. Scant rainfall also means children have to walk up to 50 kilometres a day in search of water.

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Climate-related geopolitical issues such as migration impact women and girls in the region disproportionately. Women make up 80% of the 100,000-120,000 climate refugees in Niger, leaving many of them vulnerable to slavery, prostitution and trafficking. Children are also left vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and lack of water.

Water solutions for sustainable regeneration

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To help the region tackle these issues, US-based Amman Imman developed its ambitious Landscape Restoration for Ecosystem Recovery (LRER) initiative. The project aims to empower and support vulnerable indigenous people through the sustainable rehabilitation and management of the Azawak in Niger.

Amman Imman was set up in 2005 to help families who had lost their traditional way of life as herders due to water scarcity.

It has since built five boreholes, including one in partnership with UNICEF, to access water in an aquifer deep underground.

an infographic on the benefits of the borehole
Amman Iman has built five boreholes to access water in an aquifer deep underground. Image: Amman Imman

To date, they serve about 100,000 people and their livestock during the height of the dry season in March, April and May, and at least 25,000 and their animals at other times.

Not only have these had positive outcomes in terms of health, hygiene and both food and water security, it has also freed up adults to generate incomes and children to attend school.

Alongside these projects, the organization also runs mobile health clinics, has launched initiatives such as cereal banks, and helped improve local education services.

Wholesale ecosystem restoration

Now Amman Imman’s LRER initiative is seeking to go even further and create wholesale ecosystem restoration, which simultaneously restores forests, pastures and watersheds.

In a project unique to the Sahel – a vast semi-arid region separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south – the nonprofit aims to take a holistic approach to rebuilding ecosystems, economies and livelihoods.

Alongside restoring landscapes using methods such as water harvesting and implementing agroforestry/permaculture techniques, it also plans supportive activities for local farmers and community leaders.

In addition, Amman Imman has built community gardens and planted about 150 fruit trees in many of the communities it serves.

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Training is key

Training local farmers and the community in agroforestry and permaculture techniques is also key for sustainable ecosystem regeneration, reforestation and food production.

Amman Imman works to provide skills training for those with little to no gardening experience in areas with community gardens, for example.

On a global level, it also wants to educate and mobilize pupils in partner schools about issues such as climate change and Africa’s Great Green Wall, a major reforestation project that aims to transform the lives of millions hit by the climate crisis.

The nonprofit thereby hopes to serve as a model to replicate across the Sahel and desertified regions across the world.

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Scaling efforts

Amman Imman is one of the organizations selected for the UpLink Trillion Trees: the Sahel and Great Green Wall challenge, launched in partnership with the World Economic Forum.

The challenge looks for innovative and entrepreneurial solutions to landscape restoration to support the Great Green Wall initiative and deliver benefits to the environment and people of the Sahel.

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthClimate ActionSocial Innovation
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