With dreams of becoming Nigeria’s “Lionel Messi,” 15-year-old Sanni Usman watches the famous footballer’s every match and trains every day in his village’s football field to sharpen his skills. But it seems his dream may be in jeopardy as his playing field could soon be gone. A stretch of gully erosion that has cut off his village road to the main town of Katsina State has started to redirect towards the community football field.

Bindawa is one of several local governments threatened by massive gully erosion in states across the northwest region of Nigeria. What started as a small crack on the road some five years ago has finally cut off Kaita village from Katsina/Kano highway. And many say changing weather patterns are to blame.

“The rains come late and don’t last for long. They are heavy, causing floods and devastating the land,” said Alhaji Ibrahim Dalhatu, the head of the local government administration in Bindawa. “As the rain moves it creates its own channels that end up breaking the soil and widen them as trenches. It started gradually but now many parts of our lands are devastated and can barely be used for agricultural purposes.”

Usman knows something is wrong but can’t explain why every year the short and heavy rain that falls in his village continues to leave large holes where the water flows. “Some years ago an access road connected my village with the highway but gradually the road was cut off. I find it hard to believe that vehicles no longer pass through my village. Especially on market days in neighboring Charanchi town, where many people travel to trade. This is now a once upon a time story because look at the road it is no longer accessible,” he said pointing dejectedly at the ground. “My fear now is that this field I come to train daily, may soon go the way of our access road.”

Land degradation such as gully erosion threatens to displace thousands of people in Katsina State, but could have been mitigated if the Great Green Wall project was implemented by the Nigerian government. The African Union proposed this project as a measure to combat desert encroachment in the Sahel region of Africa over a decade ago in Njamena, Chad. It involves the planting of shelter belt trees that would combat desert creep and boost the quality of the soil, as well as economic activities in the affected areas. The project involves eleven countries from Senegal in West Africa to Djibouti in East Africa.

Usman believes the changing rain patterns are destroying the soils of Kaita. “After last year’s rainy season, we noticed the soil became lose and cracks appeared on the ground. The land towards our field started breaking slowly, then we decided to move a bit farther from the approaching trenches. If something is not done about this trench, we may no longer have a football field to train on.”

The road connecting Bindawa to Katsina highway has been destroyed by gully erosion (Credit: Augustina Ogbonna)

The road connecting Bindawa to Katsina highway has been destroyed by gully erosion (Credit: Augustina Ogbonna)

Katsina receives an annual rainfall of less than one meter between early April and July. Sometimes the rainy season extends further to September. During much of this time, the rainfall is irregular and heavy, running off rather than absorbing into the dry soil. The lack of drainage channels along roads is also increasing the incidence of gully erosion. When it rains, the water always create a new channel, which becomes one of many gullies that have devastated the land in parts of Katsina State.

In 2013, the road between Katsina and Kano was reconstructed after collapsing during a heavy downpour. A connecting bridge was also constructed to link the road, but environmental advocate Shehu Lawal believes it may collapse in a couple of years. Construction of a bridge is not the solution, he says, the focus should instead be on creating drainage channels that can funnel excess rain and help reduce gully erosion.

“Most of the roads are constructed without drainage. This will surely leads to the roads been eroded. Water will always look for a channel,” he said.

Who can farm around a gully?

Katsina is one of the states in northern Nigeria that is affected by desert encroachment and resulting gully erosion. Many people in villages across the state are losing their lands and access roads. A massive gully along the Katsina/Kano road is especially hazardous for nighttime drivers.

Lawal believes that the state government needs to do more to protect the environment. “During the administration of Musa Yar’Adua [the former governor of Katsina State], many trees were planted to protect the soil, but the subsequent administration didn’t take tree planting [seriously],” he said. “In the border communities with the desert, our farmers can’t use the land. Do you know that some farmers now move to other villages to farm because of desert encroachment and these gullies? Who can farm around a gully? It is a death trap.”

In the local government area of Charanchi, the community primary school is surrounded by large gully trenches, which head teacher Ibrahim Ladan calls “a threat.” “This school has a population of about 600 pupils. We serve the whole community and want to build more classrooms, but there is no land to build on. The gully erosion is advancing closer to our classrooms. If nothing is done we might lose parts of this school,” he said. “We have written to the state government but nothing is yet to be done…It is a death trap but we don’t have a place where we can put our students except here.”

It’s an especially severe blow to Katsina State—one of the poorest in the country—which already suffers from extremely low enrollment levels. Katsina State official Hussaini Dangari said the government is attempting to teach people on the need to protect the environment and prevent such side effects as the creeping gullies through advocacy and education programs.

Solar powered borehole installed in Mai Adua area of Katsina state by the Great Green Wall Project Office (Credit: Augustina Ogbonna)

Solar powered borehole installed in Mai Adua area of Katsina state by the Great Green Wall Project Office (Credit: Augustina Ogbonna)

“Katsina State is the highest beneficiary of the Great Green Wall project in Nigeria,” said Dangari, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Environment. “The shelter belt is planted across ten local governments in the frontline areas impacted by desert encroachment. Between 2013 till now, 47 kilometers of shelter belts have been planted under the Great Green Wall project in Katsina State.”

In October 2015, 925 million naira designated for the Great Green Wall project was recovered after being fraudulently diverted from the Federal Ministry of the Environment. This came after various investigations were carried out by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission, Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency. Coupled with the fact that Nigeria elected not send a representative to the Third African Ministerial Conference on the project a year earlier, environmental experts are questioning Nigeria’s commitment to actual implementation of the Great Great Wall Initiative.

A visit to the border with the Niger Republic turned up few shelter belt trees. N’Goual Djoumaye village, which sits in both Nigeria and Niger shows visible signs of desert encroachment. Moahmed Abubakar, leader of the village’s Nigerian side, said no tree has been planted in the community under the Great Green Wall project.

“The desert starts becoming visible from mid-December. This green (sparsely grown nerdy shrubs) you are seeing now will disappear. The trees you can see now we’re planted by us. There is not one tree planted by the Great Green Wall here,” he said. “Even though we are affected by desertification, the impacts have gotten so bad that before we could harvest an average of 10 bundles of millet but now we barely harvest 2 bundles.”

Instead of trees, the only sign of the project is a rusted board baring a Great Green Wall logo mounted on a pole. A fenced area close by was meant to be a nursery for the new trees, but the space is deserted. According to Ministry of Environment officials, Katsina State is supposed to be the highest beneficiary of the project.