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Groups Seek to Combat Desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa

A high-level meeting on the role of science and research in combating desertification in sub-Saharan Africa opened in Niamey, the capital of Niger, on Saturday. Desertification adversely affects the lives and livelihood of more than 50 million people in the Sahel region.

Leading international scientists, researchers, representatives of donor agencies, non-governmental groups and U.N. agencies are hoping to evolve a better future for sub-Saharan Africa's drylands, safe from the scourge of desertification.

Agriculture in the Sahel, sub-Saharan Africa's northern-most agricultural zone, is being threatened by desertification, aggravating food insecurity in one of the poorest regions of the world.

Millions of farmers in the region, who practice subsistence farming in a fragile environment, have seen crop yields fall drastically over the years.

Mark Winslow, of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, says new techniques, including applying even small amounts of fertilizer, called micro-dosing, can increase crop yields dramatically.

"If you buy about $10 worth of fertilizer, you get about $50 worth of extra millet, cereal crop in the dry area of the Sahel," he noted. "A lot of potential solutions that have been developed by research, or are being developed have not been implemented, because we do not have the world commitment that the problem needs. So, we are trying to highlight some of the solutions. One example is micro-dosing and that is to overcome the belief that fertilizer is a bad thing for dry places, because we have research that shows that, if you use the right type of fertilizer, it can actually be a good thing."

Niger, host of the three-day international workshop, was hit by a debilitating famine in 2005, prompting an international emergency response, including $100 million in food aid.

Winslow says intensifying international efforts to combat land degradation in sub-Saharan Africa's drylands is more cost effective than providing food aid.

"We estimate probably about $20 million per country will enable us to really spread this technology, and per country I mean dryland countries like Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, northern Nigeria, Chad, all these Sahelian countries," he said.

He says such investment could have made a difference in Niger.

"For example, we calculated that, in Niger, if only about 20 percent of the farmers had adopted this in 2004, there probably would not have been famine in 2005," he added. "So, if you calculate the cost of hunger, which includes the cost for importing all the food for food aid, it is much cheaper to invest $20 million."

The United Nations has declared 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. The Niamey forum hopes to galvanize global support to reduce poverty by combating desertification in the Sahel region of Africa.