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Spreading desert threatens to bury a way of life

By Peter BlackburnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 1987

Nouakchott, Mauritania,

The lords of the desert have become the beggars of the towns in the West African state of Mauritania as persistent drought forces nomads to sell their herds and give up their traditional lifestyle. ``The drought has driven the nomads from the interior into the cities,'' says Henrik Olesen, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) representative in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. ``Twenty years ago 85 percent of the population were nomads - now only 15 percent remain in the desert.''

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``We are seeing the death of a culture,'' laments the secretary general of the government's ministry of rural development in a recent magazine interview. The nomads have lost their livestock, their traditional source of livelihood, and are now dependent on food aid.

The problem is most acute here in Nouakchott. The city was built for 30,000 people; but the desert refugees have swelled its population to more than 500,000. Most of the city's inhabitants live in wooden and tin shacks without electricity or running water in a sprawling bidonville surrounding the modern city center.

The military regime of Col. Muawiya Ould Sidi Ahmad Taya, encouraged by aid donors, has organized ``food for work'' programs to combat the ``beggar'' mentality of the new arrivals. People have been mobilized to sweep the sand off the streets and clear up rubbish. ``Nouakchott now has a new look,'' one local resident reported.

Greater popular participation is a key part of the government's effort to fight desertification, an official explained. In the past people were mainly puzzled onlookers.

Among the hardest hit

As desertification has continued unchecked in West Africa, Mauritania has become one of the worst affected nations in the Sahel region, a recent UN report says. The situation here has ``seriously deteriorated'' in recent years due to a combination of ``climatic and man-made factors,'' the report adds.

A recent World Bank report confirms this analysis. ``The accumulating effects of rangeland overstocking, proliferation of water wells and population pressure on scrub cover for use as firewood,'' the report says, ``have set in motion in Mauritania the ... process of desertification to a degree which is probably the most widespread and severe in the Sahel.''

As a result of such grim warnings, the military regime is now responding more positively to the threat posed by the advancing desert.

One sign of this response: Mauritania recently launched a national tree planting campaign. ``Until recently people only thought of trees in terms of firewood - not as protection against the desert'' an official explained.

During the past 10 years the country's sparse tree cover has been reduced by 30 percent. The trend is likely to continue as firewood, including charcoal, is used for 90 percent of domestic energy needs and consumption is estimated to be eight times greater than tree growth.

Efforts to develop alternative energy sources have yielded few results. No commercial oil or gas finds have so far been made here, while the country has only limited hydroelectric potential. Little has so far been done to develop renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power, which offer the best prospects, according to experts.

Massive tree-felling is one of several man-made factors that have accelerated the advance of the desert in recent years, according to a UN report.

Overgrazing continues

Another factor has been overgrazing, which has destroyed vast areas of pasture land, leaving it exposed to erosion by the sun and wind.