desertification in africa
desertification in africa
Engikaret Village in Tanzania

Text & Photos By Mike Long of Gondwana Ecotours

Changing weather patterns determine the quality of life on Earth. Soil conditions, wildlife and plant biodiversity and resistance to natural disasters are all at the whim of climate. Of the many types of transformations, the process of desertification is perhaps the highest priority. Due to the huge public health and safety risks it poses — in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa especially — many organizations are researching methods to combat the process.

Desertification & Climate Change

Desertification is typically defined as the process by which land becomes desert through excessive droughts or deforestation. Among the exhibited symptoms is water scarcity. When the demand for water in drylands exceeds what is available, water scarcity results in negative impacts on human health, livestock, fuel and agriculture. While drought happens less frequently than other natural disasters, it tends to affect a broad region for seasons or even years at a time, even after the drought ends.

In a region with a sufficient support system, the effects may be somewhat mitigated; however, in a region with little support from neighboring communities, the effects can be much more devastating.

Have you heard of #desertification? If not, read this. #africa Share on X
desertification in africa
Maasai children

Additionally, desertification has long-term effects well after the rains become more favorable. Over time cover vegetation is etched out, causing decreased ability for the soil to hold nutrients; meaning that if and when climate does become more favorable, the loss of natural support systems is often so crippled that flooding, dust storms and other hazards are still very probable. When the land is degraded, it becomes less able to retain water, and water scarcity is increased.

This process has happened independently of human interaction for millennia, but our contributions to climate change have shifted the responsibility into our hands. Climate change has seen a significant acceleration in this process, and there are few parts of the world likely to feel the impacts more than sub-Saharan Africa. One tribe in particular, the Maasai, are feeling the effects of this crisis.

Loss Of Rainfall & Culture

The Maasai are a widely-documented tribe that has been in Tanzania and Kenya for over 2,000 years. Iconically dressed in red cloaks with staff in hand, images of the Maasai have graced countless publications and photos.

The Maasai are known for their spirited jumping dances, song and cattle-centric lives, and their lifestyle and culture are directly linked to the geographical conditions of their home. Agriculture is not easily practiced in the region due to soil conditions, so the Maasai use cattle for most of the food needs. Since cattle is so highly prized, it is also an indicator of status or wealth. Additionally, since cattle need to graze, this practice gives rise to Maasai’s nomadic culture.

With climate change now affecting this relatively isolated and unsupported indigenous population, their lack of access to water is creating a health and safety crisis.

#Water scarcity is threatening the #Maasai. Here's how. #africa Share on X

This is especially true in terms of water-borne illness. Despite beliefs that humans can adapt and thrive in almost any setting, many of these bacterial diseases plague people over the course of their lives, skewing development and inhibiting their bodies’ ability to acquire nourishment from food. This results in severe forms of malnutrition, kwashiorkor and marasmus.

desertification in africa
Maasai women and child

Chronic illness also means severely interrupted, if not totally dismantled, opportunities at seeking education.

Additionally, as desertification intensifies in Tanzania and Kenya, livable land is becoming more sparse. The Maasai in particular are resorting to consolidating communities to share resources — like water — more easily. Wanting to preserve their indigenous culture, the Maasai bring their livestock in these denser consolidated communities and as a result, levels of disease are on the rise.

The community of Engikaret in particular “…..collects water during the rainy season, but they only dig a hole on the ground for the rain water collection and there is no fence (to bar animals from getting in) for water security, so the water is completely unsafe…” states safari guide and operator Robert Oltumure.

Tourism’s Impact On The Maasai

Many tourists in Tanzania and Kenya meet the local Maasai people as a part of their safari, and it ends up being an eye-opening experience. There is irony, however, in that these excursions can have inadvertent negative impacts on the Maasai, as safari lodges, camps and indigenous communities all get their water from a single source. After the tourists drink up, there’s little for the people who actually depend on its presence.

This impact — when combined with the ongoing drought — puts the Maasai and other groups at risk for accessing water on their own land. Access to an indigenous community’s natural resources is linked directly to the preservation of one’s identity and sense of self and history. For a rural community such as Engikaret (mentioned earlier), being able to access water on their own land does more than save lives. It continues culture and reinforces a sense of community.

For a rural community having #water on their own land saves lives AND continues #culture. Share on X

A Solution To The Problem

Researchers have already begun studying ways to halt the problem. One man recently spoke out, revealing there is more groundwater in Africa that previously thought. While accessing groundwater can include several points of failure — from construction of a bore to access water and regular maintenance after it is complete — research continues to drive this field of study:

How do we access groundwater safely for indigenous communities on vulnerable land?

A water bore system pumps up the water found in the cracks between soil, sand, and fractured rock, and at best, can be a clean source of drinking water. At the very least, having access to rainfall that has accrued throughout the year gives the recipients an opportunity to use water for cooking, cleaning, growing food and more. In areas with very poor populations, access to groundwater through a bore can act as a buffer to help ensure food security.

How do we access ground #water safely for indigenous communities on vulnerable land? #africa Share on X
desertification in africa
Villagers of Engikaret

Some Assembly Required

In positive news, two companies are collaborating to build a water bore in Tanzania for the community of Engikaret. After creating a trip to, and having an invaluable experience meeting with the Maasai herdsmen of Engikaret, Gondwana Ecotours wanted to find a way to give back to the community in a meaningful way.

A staggering number of water bores are built without consideration to how they will be maintained once the project is complete. As a result, most fall into disrepair and don’t end up benefitting the community they were intended for. To keep this from happening, Gondwana has set up a partnership with Lems Shoes, a small, environmentally-conscious shoe company, wherein every pair sold with the code “Gondwana15” will have 15% of the cost donated toward this initiative. A number of Lems’ shoes are vegan, like their Boulder Boot.

Use code Gondwana15 at Lems Shoes for 15% of your purchase to #support clean drinking #water in #Africa. Share on X

Get Involved

In addition to tapping into the groundwater, another project goal is raising awareness about local desertification and pushing research to make bores increasingly available and effective. In the short-term, this project is a great model for how for-profit businesses can still incentivize global welfare concerns in a meaningful way. While the international community has taken steps on curbing climate change, immediate action is necessary on a global-scale to secure African regions against disease, drought and famine.

To create lasting change, the best thing to be done is promote awareness, education and assess one’s personal contribution. Beginning at home, look for ways to reduce water waste and contributions to climate change. As within any ecosystem, no two organisms are separate. What choices one makes at home ripple throughout the world. People looking to get involved in this region should start by exploring the concept of desertification, as well as solutions to the problem.

What choices one makes at home ripple throughout the world. #climatechange #travelgood Share on X

For more information on desertification in Africa, visit the United Nation’s Convention to Combat Desertification. To get some shoes or learn more, visit Lems Shoes or Gondwana Ecotours.

desertification in africa
Mike Long

About Mike Long

Mike Long is the operations manager for Gondwana Ecotours and an avid traveler. He enjoys growing food and researching food politics and sustainability. He currently resides in New Orleans.


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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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