Death of a culture?

In the west African state of Mauritania, the lords of the desert have become the beggars of the towns as persistent drought and desertification force them to sell their herds and give up their nomadic life style. ``The drought has driven the nomads from the interior into the cities,'' says Henrik Olesen, UN Development Program representative here. ``Twenty years ago, 85 percent of the population was nomads. Now only 15 percent remain in the desert.''

``We are seeing the death of a culture,'' lamented the secretary-general of the Ministry of Rural Development in a recent magazine interview. The nomads have lost their livestock, their traditional source of livelihood, and now depend on food aid.

The problem is most acute in Nouakchott, the capital, built for 30,000 people but now swollen to more than 500,000 by the desert refugees. Most of the city's inhabitants live in wooden and tin shacks in a sprawling shantytown surrounding the city center.

In recent months, the military regime of Col. Muawiya Ould Sidi Ahmad Taya, encouraged by aid donors, has organized ``food for work'' programs to combat the growing ``beggar'' mentality among new arrivals. People have been mobilized to sweep the sand off the streets and clear up the rubbish. Greater popular participation is key to the government's strategy to fight desertification, an official said. In the past, people have mainly been puzzled onlookers.

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

Such grim warnings have spurred the military regime to take more action against the advancing desert. Recently Mauritania launched a national tree-planting campaign. ``Until recently, people only thought of trees in terms of firewood - not as protection against the desert,'' said an official.

During the past 10 years, the country's sparse tree cover has been reduced by 30 percent. The trend is likely to continue, because firewood makes up 90 percent of energy needs and consumption is about eight times greater than tree growth.

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

Because of the country's poor, often nonexistent, rainfall, the government has launched a major irrigation plan to reduce a huge deficit in the production of cereals. It plans to irrigate 25,000 acres in the Senegal River Valley and another nearby river valley by 1990. Completion, later this year of the Manantali dam on a main tributary to the Senegal River in Mali, is expected to create an irrigatable area of 300,000 acres on Mauritania's of the Senegal River.

However, some aid donors criticize irrigated farming for being capital intensive and expensive. Irrigation systems are difficult to operate and maintain in a largely illiterate society with few technicians, they say. And, intensive irrigated farming exhausts the soil and encourages increased consumption of untraditional food, notably rice.

Some donors, such as the United States Agency for International Development (AID), believe that flood-recession agriculture - cultivation of river valleys and plains after flood waters recede - is a more cost-effective way to increase food production in the Senegal River valley. AID has designs to build a couple of weirs on a small creek, the Dirol, and reinforce a dike so as to double the area of land available for cultivation.

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

Although better rainfall the past two years has resulted in a substantial increase in the cereals crop, Mauritania is likely to remain the nation most heavily dependent on food aid in West Africa, donors say. Last year's cereals crop totaled 95,000 tons, compared with 20,000 tons during the drought in 1984. But that is still only a third of the national consumption of 270,000 tons.

To stimulate local farming, the amount of free food aid is gradually reduced and the counterpart funds raised from food sales are being reinvested in agricultural projects. A fund set up for such reinvestments, due to begin operating later this year, will ``improve aid coordination and control of funds so as to make a bigger impact on food output,'' according to John Mace, the European Community delegate here.

Apart from short periods of relief, Mauritania has been affected by drought for the past 20 years. During this period, the 150-millimeter rainfall line - the minimum for the survival of trees and shrubs - has descended 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Nouakchott. The capital, is in danger of being swamped by sand dunes that sweep right up to the Atlantic Ocean.

The desert is estimated to be advancing some 6 km a year and now covers more than 75 percent of the nation. Despite the danger that the desert may soon overrun the country, Mr. Olesen notes a few reasons for hope.

The country is almost as big as Alaska and although the population is growing steadily there are still less than 2 million people. The 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. Fish, however, is not the diet of desert nomads.

Road to desolation

A combination of man-made and natural forces has greatly accelerated the advance of the Sahara in recent years. These factors include:

Intensive felling of trees, which has left the soil exposed to erosion and void of vital nutrients.

A series of droughts which has hit the country's livestock hard. More than one-third of the country's estimated 1 million cattle have perished, and 20 percent of the 6 million sheep and goats have also died. Only the country's 700,000 camels survived virtually unscathed.

Overgrazing, which has destroyed vast areas of pastureland, leaving it exposed to erosion by the sun and wind. Despite the loss of livestock, overgrazing remains acute, because the herds are now more concentrated, agricultural experts say.

Poor farming techniques, which have overworked and underfed the soil.

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