Northern Nigeria is a region of vast arable land, capable of feeding the entire country with enough left to export. Yet millions of its inhabitants have been uprooted in their own country, victims of the advancing Sahara Desert that is moving southward at a rate of 0.6 kilometers per year.

The resulting land deterioration leaves formerly productive fields barren and unfit for human habitation, which threatens not only food security but economic and social stability. Nigeria is one of the nations most at risk with 11 northern states at the front lines, including Kebbi, Zamfara, Gombe, Yobe, Adamawa and Bauchi.

Reports say that Nigeria loses at least 35,000 hectares of its arable land annually to desert encroachment in the north. This is comparable to the size of Lagos State, Nigeria’s economic capital and its most populous region. According to Alhaji Garba Sale, the Director of Forestry and Ecology in Kano State, one major consequence of northern desert encroachment is the massive migration of the people due to the loss of farmlands, a situation that puts pressure on food production in the country.

“The major socio-economic impact of desert encroachment is the loss of farmlands. Immediately following that is migration syndrome because once the local population loses their farmlands, the alternative option for them is to relocate and unfortunately they relocate to urban areas,” said Sale. “By moving to the cities, we are creating more mouths to be fed while farm produce is reduced. This is a big problem. No nation can survive if this is allowed to go on.”

Alhaji Garba Sale (Credit: Augustina Armstrong-Ogbonna)

Alhaji Garba Sale (Credit: Augustina Armstrong-Ogbonna)

A tour of some of the affected states, including Katsina, Kano, and Sokoto, reveals that rainfall—still heavy in some southern states—has been dramatically reduced, many streams have dried up and crops have withered on the vine. According to a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “agricultural production and food security (including access to food) in many African countries and regions are likely to be severely compromised by climate change and climate variability.”

A number of countries in Africa already face semi-arid conditions that make agriculture challenging and climate change will likely to reduce the length of growing season as well as eliminate large regions of formerly productive agricultural land. Projected yield reductions in some countries “could be as much as 50% by 2020, and crop net revenues could fall by as much as 90% by 2100, with small-scale farmers being the most affected.”

Along the border with the Niger Republic, farmers complain that crop yields have reduced by as much as 80%. Farm lands which used to produce over ten bundles of millet now can barely produce two due to ravaging deserts that are leaving a trail of poverty in their path.

Sambo Issah, a local leader in the farming community said that further intervention is needed from the government. Research into quick maturing crop species, for example, is critical since the rainy season has drastically shortened to about three months per year. Issah said the government has promised to create a four kilometer long shelter belt, or line or trees, to protect crop lands from harsh weather and encroaching desert.

“We are suffering here in Köngo Village, in Mai Adua Local government. Here we face many environmental problems such as erosion and desert encroachment. This has caused reduction in farm produce while some areas cannot be cultivated at all,” he said.

“Rainfall keeps reducing each year. Some 10 years ago, we used to witness rainfall for at least 5-6 months and the farm harvest was impressive,” Issah said. “Now we hardly get three months of rainfall.”

Advancing desert fueling conflict

Conflict over dwindling land resources has also fueled violence between farmers and nomadic herdsmen, reportedly claiming hundreds of lives over the last five years and mounting economic losses. The group known as the Fulani herdsmen has been accused of raping women, destroying farmlands and inducing inter-ethnic violence as they move from state to state in search of viable grazing land for their flock.

But experts say that herders have long been neglected by federal development programs that favor agrarian farmers. “There is a National Policy on Livestock Agriculture, but that is hardly implemented,” said Mallam Ahmed Bello, a top official with the Confederation of Traditional Herder Organizations in West Africa. Traditional grazing routes, he says, have been overtaken by farmers who use the land for cultivation or information irrigation areas during the dry season. “The herdsmen are aware of the grazing corridors and they know their routes,” he said, “but when these routes are encroached on, we have conflicts.”

Statistics from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture show that more than half of Nigeria’s national grazing routes have been encroached upon. Actions that have sparked “a call to war,” according to Saidu Bala, a herder from Plateau state. “What do you expect from us when our source of existence is threatened?” he asked. “We have no option but to fight back.”

The Islamist insurgency in parts of northern Nigeria has also been linked to the advancing desert. Locals say that Boko Haram militants hide behind the instability caused by poverty and unemployment, and use hopelessness as a recruitment tool.

A way forward?

Experts say the time is now for the Nigerian government to execute its commitments under the Great Green Wall (GGW) project, a regional initiative to create a wall of trees and block the desert from encroaching southwards.

The wall of trees is expected to run across frontline areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal in West Africa, through 11 states in Nigeria to Djibouti in East Africa. Ten years after the GGW project was conceived, it has yet to fully commence in Nigeria. In Katsina State, an area designated for project implementation is waiting to break ground. Trees are still in the nursery, while a solar borehole for watering the plants sits nearby.

But Hussaini Dangari, the Permanent Secretary for Katsina States’s Ministry of the Environment, insists that the project has fully kicked off and was positively affecting host communities.

“Katsina state has the greatest number of local governments that the GGW Program covers. The state also is contributing a lot towards the success of this project through not only funding, but also in sensitizing the public to know the importance of it,” Dangari said. “Orchards are also being established so that the communities can use them. The seedlings are raised by the communities themselves.”

In addition to the GGW project, many northern states have their own individual tree planting initiatives, some spanning as long as thirty years, others much newer, but the positive impact they have on farm land is clearly visible. In areas where trees have grown big enough to block the wind, crop yields were high unlike other unprotected areas, as observed in Kongo and Kano state.

Bold steps taken by the Nigerian government to mitigate the impact of northern desert encroachment through the GGW project, in addition to other structured tree planting initiatives and adaptation measures, is a critical step to securing a successful future for the people.