FAO Regional Office for Near East and North Africa

Malouma proudly shows off the onions, tomatoes and garlic she has successful grown on a small piece of desert land barely bigger than a prayer rug. Her green, flourishing miracle is hope that stands out against the stark, arid yellow of the vast advancing desert.

A Green belt to save a city stranded between the ocean and the desert

In the village of Wabonde, Southern Mauritania, near the Senegal River, villagers spend their daily lives battling the effects of desertification - shifting sand dunes and harsh climatic conditions - with very little resources. The Mauritanian capital is a clear example of such a case. Once a small fishing village, Nouakchott is today threatened on all sides by both the ocean and the surrounding sand dunes, making this one of Africa's most interesting capitals.

A Green belt to save a city stranded between the ocean and the desert

Historically Nouakchott was surrounded by sand dunes reaching more than 25 meters high - dunes which threatened the city's vital infrastructure, agricultural livelihoods and the overall food security of its people.

Nouakchott is considered the only capital in the world which lies between the ocean and the desert and, in fact, a few years ago, an entire neighbourhood had to be evacuated, as its lands are vulnerable and many neighbourhoods are located below sea level.

The Green Belt created in 1975 to rehabilitate nearly 1,200 hectares with cultivated grass did not take into consideration rapid population growth and the great pressure on urban and semi-urban areas over years.

It is for this reason that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with a financial contribution from Belgium, launched a seven year pilot project to "support the rehabilitation and expansion of the Nouakchott Green Belt."

To stabilize the sand and coastal dunes, simple but effective techniques, which can be easily adopted by affected communities, using low cost local materials, were developed.

By filling up dunes on the coast to make them 1.5 meters wider and enable them to stand against sea water flooding and infiltrations, the city of Nouakchott was saved.

After a year of good results, the successful experiment to stabilize sand dunes became a good example for other countries of the sub-region, resulting in an exchange of experiences and study tours to   Morocco and West Africa.

Turning desert into cultivable lands

"The necessity to continue support for agriculture and grazing is essential. Farmers must be aware of good seeds and ploughing equipment. The presence of the millet mill will ease the burden of women who serve their families, prepare meals, ensure education for their children and clean the house constantly because of the sand that makes way everywhere.

Malouma, head of the Women's Committee of Wabonde in Southern Mauritania, her head, wrapped in flamboyant scarf, sips her tea while reading off a list of village needs. And in a country where silence and patience are synonymous with austerity and hospitality, listening is crucial.

The desertification and degradation of natural resources were also threatening arable lands in South-West Mauritania, where entire villages faced multiple challenges to sustainable management of natural resources and environmental problems.

As the best conditions to protect crops from environmental and climatic hazards were not in place, farmers and villagers were reluctant to invest in agriculture. But without producing enough food, their livelihoods were under the constant threat of food insecurity.

It is for this reason that villagers issued a special petition calling for help. This resulted in the launch of an intervention funded by Spain and implemented by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The project’s objective was to support local farmers on a few fronts: helping them join together into cooperatives; training them in modern techniques of agricultural production; training on systems to detect, manage and respond to hazards generated by the hard climatic conditions of the area.  

By protecting and diversifying crops, the project created new jobs. This in turn led, not only to keeping potential migrants in their villages, but also regained those who left to seek jobs in neighbouring Algeria or Senegal.

The uninhabited, sandy area of degraded lands on the way to Boghe’, was progressively turned into a lively green area were cultivations were expanded from 0.25 hectares to 15/16 hectares.

Similarly, in the village of Wabonde, through another project, the Food and Agriculture Organization assisted local communities in the re-reproduction of traditional Arabic gum and feed, previously one of the main economic resources in the country and ranked second in the world after Sudan in terms of top quality.

The village of Wabonde has today two cooperatives: one for women and the other for men. Women grow cabbage, turnips, eggplant, and men grow gum, and millet.

“This project has been exceptionally successful. It has not only helped associating farmers in cooperatives, giving them one, united voice, but it has also created new job opportunities, diversifying crops,  and ensuring  a healthier and more diversified diet for everyone” says Sheikh Weld Abdel-Latif Moussa, head of management committee of the site for re-reproducing gum and feed,  “the wealth of this area has drastically improved” he adds.