Deforestation is a growing man-made disaster. More than 47,000 km2 of forest is lost worldwide every year, with 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest destroyed in the last quarter century. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), forests absorb 30 percent of emissions from industry and fossil fuels, yet 10 million hectares of forest are lost worldwide every year. Deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for 11 percent of carbon emissions.
Although different environmental authorities have different estimates of the percentage of Africa that is perennially dry, it can safely be assumed that at least a third of the continent is desert. Of significance is that about half of Africans live in arid, semi-arid, dry sub-humid and hyper-arid areas.
According to the UNEP, about 45 percent of Africa’s land surface is affected by desertification, and 55 percent of this area is at high or very high risk of further degradation. The global environmental body also estimates that around 20 percent of Africa’s land surface, equivalent to 6.6 million km2, has been degraded by soil erosion, salinity, pollution, and loss of vegetation or soil fertility.
Desertification in Africa has adversely affected millions of livelihoods. This has also reduced the continent’s socioeconomic growth since the arid lands are virtually unproductive, and even gobble up resources with scant returns. Moreover, increasing desertification seriously hampers food security in the continent as arable land decreases tremendously every year.
But the continent does not have to keep suffering the vagaries of desertification if it is ready to learn and apply best practices from countries around the world that have overcome and turned around this phenomenon. While acknowledging that desertification has also had a profound effect on China, President Xi Jinping recently hailed and outlined the country’s efforts in combating desertification along its northern border.
China’s “three-North,” comprising the northwest, north, and northeast regions, is home to deserts, including the Gobi, the sixth largest desert in the world. The country launched the “three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program” project in 1978, which was the same time as the country’s “Reform and Opening Up”, which is credited with birthing China so-called economic miracle. By 2050, this so-called Great Green Wall will create a 2,783 miles forest belt covering a total of 35.6 million hectares.
The construction of major ecological projects like forest farms in the region has created an “ecological security barrier” and an “indestructible green wall of the northern border.” This has stopped the escalation of the desert and secured the gains made in rehabilitating the hitherto perennially scorched earth.
Between 1990 and 2015, China planted the newest forest of any country. In 2015, the amount of forest planted in China was 79 million hectares, an area more than three times that of the United Kingdom. Since the 1990s, China has invested more than $100 billion in afforestation programs and planted more than 35 billion trees in 12 Chinese provinces.
President Xi underscored the role of leadership in implementing the foregoing strategies and attributed their success to the commitment of the Communist Party of China. Many African countries are indeed following this example as their presidents or prime ministers lead from the front in environmental restoration. Strong leadership shows the full commitment of the government.
Public officials and other authorities will take cue from the commitment shown by leadership. During his tour, Xi also visited Wuliangsu Lake, a rare large grassland lake in the desert area where public officials are credited with restoring the lake’s ecological functions by curbing its pollution by urban sewage and industrial wastewater.
Efforts in fighting desertification should be pursued as part of the global initiative to green the planet. Just like China’s eradication of poverty contributed to the massive reduction of global poverty, the country’s greening campaign has contributed to a quarter of global efforts in the fight against desertification.
A 2019 study published in Nature Sustainability found that at least 25 percent of global foliage propagation has come from China since the early 2000s. Moreover, 2018 data showed that the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program had increased the forest area by 30.14 million hectares since its inception in 1978.
China is first among equals in fighting desertification, through reforestation. Other countries with similar best practices for rehabilitating deserts include India, Chile, Vietnam, Turkey, Romania, Italy, and Australia. This shows that reforestation is not a developed country affair, but something that any country can invest its time and resources in through focus and determination.
Africa can learn crucial lessons from China’s eco-civilization which embodies harmonious living between man and nature. The continent understands the value of nature, or its lack thereof, in sustaining life. Indeed, the continent has experienced grave human suffering from desertification and is desperate for environmental technologies that curb the problem. Africa urgently and desperately needs a substantial increase in forests to mitigate not only against climate change but also to help in its transition to green development.