Plants vs Sand

How the World Food Programme is helping communities use plants to stop sand dunes in Mauritania

Michael Goode
Apr 26, 2018 · 4 min read

A lone grain of sand, on its own, is completely harmless. It travels on its journey carried by the wind, by water, or even hitchhikes on a living being, barely noticed as it meanders through the landscape. When a grain of sand joins up with others to become a sand dune, it can become a force that buries villages, roads, crops and water sources. Such sand dunes can be the harbingers of a growing desert that many warnings say is the future for communities living next to these restless sand grains.

Image for post
Image for post
A young boy stands on the road as the winds and sand pick up in the suburbs of Kaédi, Mauritania. Photo: WFP/Agron Dragaj

Desertification is a process in which once fertile lands in dry areas become increasingly arid, losing their potential for producing food and supporting life. There are many causes contributing to the degradation and loss of vegetation in desertification, including unsustainable land management and climatic variation that exacerbate the issue through changing rainfall patterns and extreme temperatures. However, this is only one part of the story. Human activities, such as overgrazing and improper agricultural practices, play a more significant role in degrading these landscapes, giving sand dunes the opportunity to move in.

The good news is that if humans are part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution. Like the lone grain of sand, it is difficult for one person to stop the dunes in their tracks, but when communities come together, and one becomes many, they can create an equally unstoppable force.

In Mauritania, where three quarters of the land area are covered by desert and one quarter of the population does not have access to sufficient, nutritious food throughout the year, stopping the movement of sand dunes is critical. It is estimated that the arid zones in the country have shifted 200 km southwards between 1961 and 2001, adding an additional 150,000 square kilometers to the desert since 1970. The country is exposed to recurrent cycles of drought that result in degradation of natural resources, structurally affecting the agricultural productivity and resilience of populations. Reduced crop harvests lead to reduced incomes in rural areas, exacerbating poverty and decreasing purchasing power to buy food.

Working closely with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MEDD), and with the financial support of the Adaptation Fund, WFP is helping communities in the southern regions of Mauritania to stop sand dune encroachment.

“Our village is dangerously threatened by active sand dune progress,” says Maatallah Ould M’barek, president of the Krimi Rag village management committee, who is working with his community to fix the moving sand dunes. “All the community, men and women, are involved,” he explains.

Image for post
Image for post
Community members of Glaguima Village participate in the mechanical dune fixation process. Photo: MEDD/Cherif Ndiaye

Sand dune fixation is a two-step process: first you must mechanically fix the dunes with woven mesh, which is a temporary solution, requiring maintenance every four to six months until the dune becomes stable. The second step is biological stabilization achieved through planting trees or shrubs that will sustainably hold the sand in place with their extensive root system. The planting areas are fenced to prevent animals from overgrazing the plants before they are established.

Image for post
Image for post
Community members plant seedlings as part of the biological dune fixation process. Photo: MEDD/Cherif Ndiaye

“We are people who love trees and we protect them because our life depends in some way on their existence,” says Agoueinitt village chief, Talibe Selmen Camara.

As of August 2017, communities taking part in the project have fixated 525 hectares of dunes, with a plan to fix a further 300 hectares in 2018. The first step of mechanical fixation involves 2,000 people, with the second step of biological fixation involving 200 people that have established 32 nurseries to produce 280,000 plants.

Image for post
Image for post
Seeds are planted in a nursery in Kaédi, that the community will then use as part of the biological dune fixation process. Photo: WFP/Agron Dragaj

“Our houses and agricultural lands are seriously threatened by the sand dunes progress,” says Mohamed Ould Moussa, president of the Tamchakett village management committee. “We have fixed about 50 ha of dunes around our village and we plan to expand this area. All the community is fully committed to continue this work as we have seen the positive impact.”

Read more about WFP and climate action

Additional reporting provided by Ghazi Gader

Image for post
Image for post
Planting and watering seeds in the community run nursery in Kaédi, Mauritania. Photo: WFP/Agron Dragaj

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store