“Climate resilience” is how prepared a system is to withstand weather extremes, without losing its ability to function properly. These “systems” could be ecosystems or social systems.
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the world's poorest countries, Niger, Mali, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Ghana. Within these countries, the communities based in the dryland regions live in the most extreme poverty. In these areas, the impact of climate shocks, like extreme drought and flooding, is arguably greater than anywhere else in the world. Among the organisations already most active in this area is TREE AID, RPS Group's corporate charity of choice. The RPS-TREE AID collaboration on the Bongo River Trees project demonstrates how important building resilience to climate shocks is in these regions.
Tree Aid – RPS project case study:
Bongo River Trees Restoration Project (TREE AID-RPS)
February 2012 to February 2017
As riverbanks in the Bongo District of Upper East Ghana have become eroded, there has been a reduction in the quality of land, the availability of water resources and a silting up of rivers. The environment is increasingly challenging for subsistence farmers because of the increased incidence of flooding, mostly in the rainy season, and the lengthening dry seasons with very occasional flash floods. This has further degraded the soil, and the loss of tree cover has made savanna forest resources scarcer. Rivers, vital to sustaining life in the area, have gradually become choked. The silt from eroded riverbanks is washing downstream into the main Vea Dam, which provides water for Bolgatanga, the regional capital of Upper East Ghana. This is drastically reducing the quality of the water across a wide area defined as part of the greater White Volta river system.
The Bongo River Trees Restoration Project, launched in January 2012, is working with 15 village communities in a 72km² project zone of Bongo District, currently home to 18,000 people. It will restore riparian tree cover along 30km of riverbank along the Agansy and the Nabakulga rivers to reduce flooding and reverse soil erosion. These trees will also improve water quality, land quality and biodiversity along the rivers, and provide income generation opportunities for local farmers. Riverbank restoration is done by creating ‘buffer zones’ on either side of the river, where land is carefully managed. These are divided into three distinct belts, with the area closest to the river becoming a protected site for enrichment planting. Beyond this is a belt to be used for controlled farming, assisted agroforestry and tree orchards. Further still will be an agricultural belt, where farmers will receive training and support in sustainable agricultural practices that conserve soil moisture and improve fertility. They will be supported to establish private woodlots and to produce fodder for their animals. Large-scale tree planting is only possible in this dry climate because of the weirs built through the project.
In 2013 and 2014, studies were carried out to identify optimal locations for the construction of weirs. In the spring and early summer of 2015, three weirs were constructed and by mid-March 2016 the fourth weirs was completed.
Project success has been dependent upon the participation, understanding and engagement of the communities and farmers involved, who are agreeing to give up scarce agricultural land at the edge of the riverbank. New income generation opportunities from nurseries, woodlots and tree products; training in improved agricultural and agroforestry techniques; and the future environmental and agricultural benefits that a restored river brings, have encouraged farmers to participate. The project will plant a total of 40,000 trees of 16 species. A further 45,000 shrubs will be planted in the buffer zone. A non-seeding vetiver grass species is also being propagated and planted out to anchor soil and prevent erosion in high risk areas.
This project is generously supported financially and technically by RPS, who, as well as funding TREE AID, are providing technical expertise to assist with erosion risk mapping, land surveying, dam engineering and biodiversity assessment.
See also: www.treeaid.org.uk
Genet Atabe is 39 and lives in Bongo District, in Upper East Ghana, three years ago she watched the banks of the river in her village crumble into the water and wash away. When she was young her parents used to tell her of a time when life in the village was different. Crops used to flourish. Trees provided income and food for the community. The river held the rains long enough for them to be used during the dry season. Weather extremes have increased globally in recent years as the CO2 in our atmosphere has risen. In Genet's village, increasing drought and hunger meant the people living in the village cut down the trees by the river to sell as firewood and use the land to grow more food.
When heavy rains came, the soil, parched by the sun and a lack of vegetation, could no longer absorb the sheer volume of water. The river banks, previously held in place by a network of tree roots, started to crumble and wash away. The river course silted up, leaving less water available for the rest of the year. The harvest suffered and so the cycle of poverty deepened for Genet.
People living in poverty are disproportionately likely to experience weather extremes, as well as having fewer resources to deal with their impact. TREE AID works in the northern “drylands” of sub-Saharan Africa; in the scrublands, grasslands and savannahs. Most people living in this region spend their lives extremely poor, with little access to healthcare or social support. During the dry season, the Harmattan wind comes off the Sahara and, without vegetation, the thin top soil can be blown away leaving little for plants to grow in.
The challenges of farming in the drylands are one of the reasons that trees are so important for alleviating poverty and for environmental protection. Trees can reverse existing damage to land and reduce the impact on dryland communities of future weather extremes. Their roots prevent fertile top soil from being blown away. They stabilise river banks. Their nuts and berries are nutrient rich and less prone to crop failure. And their bark and leaves can be turned into useful products to sell at market. Trees are vital for building resilience to climate shocks, a landscape with more trees will be better able to withstand the impact of weather extremes.
TREE AID works with communities to prepare them for climate extremes, training them in how to sustainably manage their trees and generate income from them. They also show people how to set up “tree-banks”, a group of established trees from which the nuts, fruit, leaves and wood are reserved for use during weather extremes. Communities can draw on them in times of hardship to supplement their dwindling stocks of food and to provide ways to make money.
Each village decides when its tree-bank resources can be used, for what purpose and how often. Tree-banking means that communities come together to think through all the potential ways that trees can be used. It empowers local people to take control of protecting and managing tree resources. And it discourages over-use and deforestation because villages see how important the trees will be during times of hardship to come.
The people of dryland Africa are not responsible for climate change. Yet they are being asked to pay the price with their lives. We must try and reduce the actions that contribute to climate change in industrialised countries. At the same time we have a duty to help those who are suffering the worst impacts of our actions, to be in a better position to face those impacts. We need to give support that helps people in the drylands today as well as tomorrow.
Trees take years to grow and become productive, so a big concern for TREE AID is showing people ways to make money quickly and sustainably without cutting down existing trees. TREE AID uses local experts in things like beekeeping, leaf harvesting and nut collection to teach other people living the community about how to make a sustainable income now, whilst they wait the four or five years for fruit, nuts and resins to be produced by their trees.
Genet and others from her village worked with TREE AID, their Ghanaian partners and RPS Group who are entirely funding the Bongo River Trees project to put trees back along the river banks and encourage regeneration of trees elsewhere. Three years later things are going well for Genet, “We have learned how to plant and care for trees, and visited some communities that have already transformed their own river banks. The benefits will increase every year as the trees grow, and our children will thank us.