Spreading desert threatens to bury a way of life

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.''

``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.

A series of droughts has decimated the country's livestock. Over a third of the country's estimated 1 million cattle have perished as well as 20 percent of the 6.5 million sheep and goats. Only the country's 700,000 camels survived unscathed. But although the problem of overgrazing remains acute, agricultural experts say. This is because the herds are now more concentrated, especially in the southeast, where water points are relatively frequent.

In light of the country's poor and often non-existent rainfall, the government has launched a major irrigation program in order to reduce the country's huge cereals deficit. It plans to irrigate 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) in the Senegal River valley and the Gorgol Noir River valley by 1990. With the completion later this year of the Manantali Dam there is a potential irrigable area of 120,000 hectares on the Mauritanian side of the Senegal River Valley.

But some aid donors criticize irrigated farming for being capital intensive and costly. Irrigation systems are also hard to operate in a largely illiterate society with few technicians, they say. In addition, intensive irrigated farming exhausts the soil and encourages increased consumption of non-traditional food, notably rice.

Some donors, such as the United States Agency for International Development (AID), believe that flood recession agriculture is a more cost effective way to increase food production in the Senegal River Valley. AID is designing a project to build a couple of weirs on the Dirol Creek and reinforce a dyke so as to double the area of land available for cultivation.

``The aim is to help farmers using traditional methods do their job better,'' AID's assistant director in Nouakchott, Walter Boehm, said.

Although better rainfall in the past two years has caused a substantial increase in the cereal crop, Mauritania is likely to remain the most heavily food-aid dependent country in West Africa, donors say. Last year's crop was 95,000 tons compared with 20,000 ton in drought-affected 1984. But it was still only about one-third the national consumption of 270,000 ton.

In order to stimulate local farming, free food aid is gradually being reduced and the counterpart funds raised from food sales being reinvested in agricultural projects. Aid donors have now set up a common counterpart fund, which is due to start operating later this year, according to the EEC delegate in Nouakchott John Mace.

``It will improve aid coordination and control of funds so as to make a bigger impact on food output'' he explained.

Climatic factors have played a part in the desert's spread. Apart from brief respites, Mauritania has been affected by drought for the past 20 years. During this period the 150 millimeter (5.9 inch) rainfall line - the minimum for the survival of trees and shrubs - has moved 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Nouakchott.

The capital, located on a barren desert plain, is now in danger of being swamped by sand dunes that sweep right up to the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

The desert is estimated to be advancing by some 6 kilometers a year and now covers more than 75 percent of the country.

Symbolic efforts have been made to stop the advancing dunes. These include the creation of a ``green belt'' around Nouakchott as well as UNDP dune-fixing schemes at Kiffa and Maghta Lagha. They involve building windbreaks, covering the dunes with dead branches and planting trees.

Cause for hope

UNDP's Olesen believes there are at least two reasons for hope. The country is almost as big as Alaska and although the population is growing it is still less than 2 million people, he notes. Per capita income of $450 a year is relatively high compared with other, more heavily populated West African countries. Mauritania also has abundant fish resources, which, if not over- exploited, would provide a self-renewable food resource.

But the desert nomads must first be persuaded to change their diet.

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