- The Mauritanian government is to take action against the country's rapidly degrading environment and desertification. Plans to establish an Environment and Sustainable Development Department are being discussed and a campaign to counter desertification by tree planting is already launched.
Most of Mauritania's vast territory is desert land, but the southern belt, along the Senegalese and Malian border provides the country with a fragile environ for agriculture and livestock breeding.
This dry Sahelian savannah is however rapidly shrinking. Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, once was at the Sahelian edge. Now, the growing metropolis is in middle of an ocean of sand desert. According to Mauritanian statistics, the Sahara desert is moving southwards at a speed of seven kilometres each year. Sand dunes follow its move and burry past human achievements.
This is only one - but the most pressing - environmental issue Mauritanian authorities have not been able to address sufficiently forceful. Environmental consciousness is however rapidly increasing, parallel with the encroaching problems.
This week in Nouakchott, the government organised a national seminar to assess the National Environmental Programme. The delegates were to discuss the organisation of environmental efforts in Mauritania at large. President Ould Sid Ahmed Taya had urged stakeholders to find better solution to the country's growing problems.
During the seminar, which was ended yesterday, participants concluded there was need for a general reorganisation of the country's environmental bodies. The Rural Development and Environment Ministry needed to strengthen its efforts on sustainable development. Therefore, the delegates proposed, a new Environment and Sustainable Development Department should be established within the Ministry.
Also, according to the seminar delegates, the Ministry needed to get stronger involved in the ongoing decentralisation of Mauritania's governing structures. Here, they held, important connections to the management of natural resources could be made. Local authorities needed training in environmental issues.
While the nation's sustainable development was discussed in Nouakchott, concrete action is now starting in the mining town of Zouerate, far north in the Sahara desert. A workshop on action against desertification and water management in the desert town marked the start of a giant reforestation project.
Here and on other Mauritanian locations, the desert's encroachment is to be met with the planting of trees and the protection of the remaining vegetation. Only around Zouerate, some 4000 trees withstanding the harsh local conditions are now to be planted.
The nation's measures against desertification are coordinated in a Rural Restoration Programme, headed y the Ministry and aided by UN and foreign cooperation agencies. The extensive programme includes efforts to plant trees, stabilise dunes with shrubs and grasses, air dropping of seeds before the annual rains and halting the use of firewood.
As the attempts to regenerate Mauritania's vegetation are enhanced, authorities also need to look at efforts to halt the current environmental degradation. Therefore, the production of firewood in banned and butane gas is promoted as a substitute with government subsidies.
Also, the scarce water resources are to be better managed. As the desert expands, rains are getting poorer while water needs increase. A growing urban population and more irrigated lands are paying a heavy toll of water reservoirs, which in many cases are ancient rests from a time when the region was more fertile. Dikes and wells are to be built to better capture rain water before it escapes to the ocean.
The challenges however remain immense as Mauritania embarks on an enhanced environmental programme. The Sahara desert still is expanding and Mauritanian farmers and herders are victimised by years of drought. Change is necessary.
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