Jordi Albacete – Environmental Journalist

Treating water with sunlight to make it safe and hot saves lives, improves health and prevents trees from being cut down for firewood. 

What’s the point of planting a tree if it never reaches adulthood? This is what Kemo Fatty wonders in the little Sahelian country of The Gambia. He is a local farmer who leads Green Up Gambia, a community led reforestation group. Kemo dreams of the day he will see baby acacia, moringa, pawpaw and palm trees reach full maturity.

A teacher in The Gambia tells children about the importance of planting trees.

The adult trees will provide fruits, intercropping opportunities, and shade for his neighbours. Kemo knows that trees also stop soil erosion and make villages more resilient to strong winds, storms and floods. However, Kemo faces a harsh reality: he cannot stop others cutting down the trees.

The adult trees will provide fruits, intercropping opportunities, and shade for his neighbours. Kemo knows that trees also stop soil erosion and make villages more resilient to strong winds, storms and floods. However, Kemo faces a harsh reality: he cannot stop others cutting down the trees.

Deforestation in West Africa

Deforestation across West Africa is widespread, from the tropical forests in the Guineas, to the semi-arid woodlands of the Sahel. Forests are disappearing in West Africa at twice the world rate, and 90% of the original forests in this region have been destroyed, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The figures are alarming, and a study by Mongabay illustrates the threat to the West African tropical forests of Guinea, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin and Ghana. According to the World Bank’s Climate Investment Fund (CIF), 50% of the forest in Ghana is experiencing a deforestation rate of 2% per year since 2000, one of the highest in the world. Ghana could lose its forests by 2040 if it continues at this rate.

Women’s Living Conditions and Firewood Use

Everyday, Zeynabou Alassane Maiga, a ten-year-old girl from the Timbuktu region in Mali, dreams of the day that she would not need to go to the river to wash herself before going to school. Her mother told her that she cannot use firewood to warm the water for her bucket shower. “This bothers me, because it means I cannot wash myself every day before I go to school”, says Zeynabou.

Barry Aliman, 24 years old, rides her bicycle with her baby to collect water for her family, Sorobouly village near Boromo, Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Stories like hers are common in such areas as Niafounké and Rharous, in the Timbuktu region. Young girls and women use water from the Niger River, wells, and ponds to meet their daily water needs. These water sources easily cause diarrhoea among the people using the water, which is a constant issue for the villagers.

Dependence on firewood is the leading cause of deforestation in Africa. Girls and women go into the forest to collect firewood for boiling water and cooking. In countries like Burkina Faso trees felled for fuel provide around 80 percent of country’s domestic energy needs. However, finding or buying the wood is not easy.

The crushed and roasted shea nuts will then be ground into a fine paste. Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Firewood Scarcity

Hindou Aguissa, from the village of Boronda, also in the Timbuktu region, struggles to find firewood near her village. She does not have any option other than to purchase it. Money is a near-luxury for her, and she needs to spend few CFA francs on a regular basis just to cook, heat and boil water.

Walking 15 kilometres to find water is a daily task for women like Adizatou Wallet Almoustapha in the Tintadenit village. None of the villagers can drink the water of the nearby pond because is polluted. Adizatou’s struggle to find drinkable water is widespread across Africa. Existing wells and facilities to access water are not well kept across the continent. This leads communities to find water from unsafe sources, as different reports show.

Fuelwood market in the centre of Malian town of Djenné. Wood is the number one fuel in many developing countries. Often people must travel long distances to collect shrinking supplies. Photograph by Stephen Codrington for Planet Geography.

Rapid deforestation also translates into migration from rural to urban areas. This rapid urbanisation leads to a lack of agricultural activity, malnourishment, and the spread of diseases.

Greening the Sahel

Rapid deforestation also translates into migration from rural to urban areas. A farmer in a small town in northern Burkina Faso, Yacouba Sawadogo, decided to reinvent agriculture after witnessing how his neighbours were migrating to the main Burkinabe cities:Ougadougou and Bobo Diolausso. This rapid urbanisation leads to a lack of agricultural activity, malnourishment, and the spread of diseases.

Sawadogo has invented a regionally well-known farming technique used to create a large, easy-to-farm forested area: the zaï holes. In the peak of the dry season, he digs pits on the degraded land, adding manure, dried leaves, and termites. These insects help to break up the soil. By creating underground tunnels they build a natural irrigation system making the soil more absorbent to rainfall. They do this work before the rainy season starts.

Yacouba Sawadogo’s innovation is greening his village. He has managed to reforest 30 acres of forests with 60 species of trees. In this large oasis this Burkinabé farmer transformed the climate.

Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer, digs planting pits to restore degraded land. Photo credit: Chris Reij, World Resources Insitute.

More trees means more shade, lower temperatures, more windbreaks and less erosion. The trees have also raised the water table, making water more accessible. One of Yacouba’s successes has been intercropping in the forest. He has managed to ensure millet and sorghum crops.

Now he is employing many of his neighbours from the nearby villages. In the last 14 years, his technique has been exported to other African and Asian countries.

Sahel Eco and International Tree Foundation are two NGOs working in West Africa for decades. They point out that governments and institutions should promote bottom up initiatives such as Yacouba’s in Burkina Faso.

What Can Be Done About It?

Planting more trees. Trees means more shade, lower temperatures, more windbreaks and less erosion. The trees have also raised the water table, making water more accessible.

Loaga village (on the road). Zone of Baobab reforestation. Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Addressing Climate Change with Forests

In Yacouba’s country, Burkina Faso, climate change is accelerating the desertification forcing farmers to go into the forests. They need new land for agriculture and livestock. Farmers let their cattle graze freely to enable them to find sufficient food. This will slow regeneration further.

To make things worse, climate change is making droughts to last longer. These droughts speed up the desertification of former arable farmlands, as Esther Mwangi, principal scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research, and researcher Monica Evans reported, in Landscape News.

The alarm is sounding. 1.5 degrees Celsius is the maximum temperature increase to avoid unprecedented environmental hazards, according the Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate change.

Children tend to a small herd of cattle outside the Zorro village, Burkina Faso.Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Temperatures are on the rise in the drylands of the sub-Saharan countries,and their governments are passing ambitious reforestation plans. They know there is not much time left to adapt to climate change. Burkina Faso’s government aims to plant 5 million trees to counterbalance the 470,000 hectares of land degraded each year in this small Sahel country.

Burkina Faso’s government aims to plant 5 million trees to counterbalance the 470,000 hectares of land degraded each year in this small Sahel country.

A woman drives a cart of firewood back to Zorro village, Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Better Bottom Up Initiatives

There are many challenges to forestry programmes in Africa. Lengthy bureaucracy and lack of transparency are symptomatic in many of these projects.

Some relationships between authorities and companies can lead to the failure in replanting trees, according to findings from the World Bank.

Malawi in East Africa has to learn from some previous reforestation mistakes. The government restored the pine trees of the Kawandama Hills in the 1950‘s. Malawians were really proud of these pine forests, however, in a short time the private timber cutters had cut down the trees. They did not replant them.

Women carrying firewood in Malawi. Photo by Skip Russell.

In 2009 a local entrepreneur, with financial help from the USAID, started to plant Citriodora trees in the Kawandama Hills. Nowadays, a local cooperative produces essential oils out of these type of eucalyptus leaves. The cooperative employs more than a hundred local villagers who harvest the Citriodora leaves twice a year.  

Eucalyptus trees, native to Australia, are often criticised for their impact on the environment, drying underground reservoirs and making the soil more acid on its top layer. However, many of the villagers in the Kawandama Hills depend on the income generated from these harvests.

Solar Energy, Safe and Hot Water at Home

The use of solar energy to purify and heat water is helping to reduce firewood consumption in different parts of Africa. This is the achievement of Swedish inventor and environmentalist Petra Wadström. Wadström has been recognised as one of Sweden’s most prestigious modern entrepreneurs and environmentalists.

Petra Wadström, founder and inventor of Solvatten. Photograph by David Wadström.

She invented a solar jerry can to give access to clean and hot water for those who are most in need. Wadström called this jerry can Solvatten, which means sun and water in Swedish.

Solvatten, a Multiple Solution

The Solvatten container holds 10 litres of water  and combines a purifier and water heater system. This technology is astonishingly simple and highly effective. These systems use only sunlight to work. The only thing users need to do is to fill the jerry can with water, open it and expose it to the sun for around two to three hours. Then they will get hot water good for preheating for cooking and other domestic uses. They can cool it down just by placing the container in the shade.

One of the secrets for this effective purifying and heating system is how to maximise sunlight.

Solvatten heating system reaches a temperature of 75 degree Celsius. This is one of the features that make Solvaten a tree saver.

The Solvatten jerry can sports a two-in-one design. It opens like a book and each of these halves are covered with special transparent lids. These lids allow sun rays to destroy the structure of DNA linkages of microorganisms, preventing them from reproducing, and pasteurising the water as a result

The unit has an average lifespan of 7 to 10 years, meaning it withstands those early years in which children are at their most susceptible to waterborne diseases.

LWF introducing Solvatten to families Turkana Photograph by Jesper Hornberg

One year of using a Solvatten jerry can saves 6 to 10 mid-size trees. These water containers have already saved approximately 4,410,000 trees from being cut down for firewood. This is about 600 square kilometres, almost the same size of the Egyptian capital city of El Cairo or the Spanish capital city of Madrid.

Appropriate technology plays a crucial role in the advancement of reforestation in Africa, according to the Centre for International Forest Research (CIFOR).

Evidence Based Impact

Solvatten has given access to safe and hot water for those most in need in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The impact of using Solvatten for impoverished households – and specifically for women and young girls – has been enormous.

Samake fadimata Matrone, midwife in Mali, with a Solvatten jerry can. Photograph by David Wadström.

Madame Samake Fadimata works in a Health Centre in Mandiakoye, in the Timbuktu region, in Northern Mali. She has been using Solvatten jerry cans for three years now. “When I go to the nomadic groups in the area I always take the Solvatten canteen with me, because there is no drinking water in this area. Solvatten gives me water for my own consumption. I also help traditional midwives for prenatal and postnatal hygiene with the water. I found that with Solvatten, there are fewer infections and diarrhoeal diseases. This device helps me a lot to achieve my health goals”, she says.

I also help traditional midwives for prenatal and postnatal hygiene with the water”, says Madame Samake Fadimata.

Climate Change and Public Health

In Madame Samake’s country, humanitarian organisation Plan International distributes Solvatten to complement projects in building resilience through secure schools and disaster prevention in the communities.

Safe hygiene with clean water is key for a good health. Solvatten works in different health interventions to avoid waterborne diseases.

Solvatten jerry cans are tree and money savers for households where infrastructure is missing. In Mali, an academic study in 2012 on the use of Solvatten showed that each household using the water containers avoided up to two tons of carbon emissions per year.  The study showed how these saved nearly $8 USD on health expenses, which is 12% of the minimum wage in Mali.

Health workers with some Solvatten jerry cans in the Community Health Centre at Tintadeny, in Mali.

Innovation is Key

Africans are embracing all sorts of innovation such as agroforestry, renewable energy and information technologies to get ready for the future

Conservationist drones or geo-tagging apps are empowering African communities and organisations to monitor logging.

By Martin Wegmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,. Available at this link.

These new technologies can help map droughts and deforestation. Expansion of cocoa monocultures is often a driver for the deforestation, satellites and drones help to track illegal logging. This holds companies to account.

Information Technologies Part of the Solution

Collaborative databases, known as Blockchain technology, are revolutionising the way we think about the economy and the climate. Bitcoin, the crypto currency, is doubtless the best-known useof this technology.

Little is known about how the use of the blockchain technology enables to tokenise energy consumption and carbon emissions.Tokens can be valued and traded as carbon offsetting and carbon credits.

Blockchain for Climatehave developed a draft specification for a new token type called Unique Fungible Tokens (UTFs) that can contain the unique information of each credit.

This information includes place of origin-for example, being a reforestation or renewable energy project- to be able to validate the authenticity of a carbon credit, while creating liquidity in the market for the carbon credit itself.

Veridium, StellarNori, and Poseidonare otherblockchain projects that help to trade carbon offsetting. This trade contributes to reforestation in Africa.


Adaptation to climate change cannot wait in Africa. Research suggests that decision makers need to embrace a mix of solutions to mitigate severe droughts and floods.

Reinventing agriculture is one of the priorities to adapt to the food scarcity worsened by the soaring rise of temperatures. Agroforestry seems the way toward subsistence for West African farmers.

Two Gambian children about to replant a tree.

Forestry and agriculture combined address food security and climate change adaptation, experts say. But to implement these methods, smallholders need initial investment.

There are a wide range of new agricultural techniques that need to be introduced to farmers: Crop diversification, hedgerow intercropping, and using live fences are just some of these good practices. They could play a vital role in improving climate change resilience.

Agroforestry and Climate Change

Some of the benefits of agroforestry are the provision of microclimate buffering and regulation of water flow, according to an international study led by different universities across Africa, Europe and the US.

Investment in agroforestry, however, is still limited.  By contrast, intensified farming systems specifically for export cash crop(monocultures of groundnutcocoa, and cotton, amongst others), are highly funded, as research from the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainabilityshows. For similar reasons conservationist groupscriticise the use of forest to produce bioenergy mass.

There are also a number of resistances to agroforestry from subsistence farmers. Where land holdings are small, farmers might resist sharing the spare land. When land holdings are insecure, villagers tend to be reluctant to plant trees, the same study concluded.

Johanny Sawadogo, Head of the Provincial Forest Service, is training beekeepers to maintain hives and collect honey, Yalka village, Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Coordinating Strategies

Coordination in the implementation of innovative technology and agroforestry is key. Appropriate policies need to back up the execution of these advancements. For example, conservationist drones can help to monitor illegal logging, but communities need an alternative energy source for firewood.

Reforestation at a global scale could mitigate the effects of climate change by 30 per cent before 2030, according to the IPCC. There are only 12 years left to avoid the surpass of the 1.5 degrees Celsius increase. The effects will be catastrophic if we reach a superior increase. In Africa, the consequences can be devastating. The clock is counting down.

A Gambian child planting a tree. Photograph by Green Up Gambia.

The Great Green Wall, Urgent Reforestation to Mitigate Climate Change

The Sahel arid lands, reaching outstanding average temperatures above 40 Celsius degrees, are one of the most vulnerable places on earth to climate change. National governments and world organisations have set up ambitious reforestation initiatives such as The Great Green Wall.[expand title=”Learn more”].

The Great Green Wall project aims to create a buffer zone of 11 million trees between the desert and the savannah crossing 11 countries from West to East Africa.

The Great Green Wall aims to halt the rapid desertification of this barren region. In order to meet this target, large organisations such as the World Bank, the UN and The African Union are supporting this initiative.

Senegal is one of the countries leading the Green Wall initiative. Absamanan Mouduba, a village Chief from this West African country, told the BBC in 2017 how reforesting with acacia trees reverses desertification in his community. “When there were no trees the wind used to dig up and erode the soil. But now the soil is more protected the leaves produce compost and the canopy increases the humidity of the environment and produces more shade so there is less need for watering”, he says.

12 years is the time left to stop the irreversible effects on the climate to limit the rise of the global temperature to 1.5C according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Scientists are urging the IPCC to put more pressure on national governments to take the role of forests in combating climate change more seriously. According to an international group of 40 scientists, halting deforestation is “just as urgent” as reducing the use of fossil fuels.

These experts argue that by protecting and reforesting forests, the world would achieve 18% of the mitigation needed by 2030 to avoid runaway climate change.


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