LONG READ: Bar keeps rising in the global battle with drought

Farmer Harouna Zalle on the waste land he is cultivating that had been neglected due to its rock hard soil. He has managed to make the land more fertile and now has enough to feed his family and surplus product to sell to make a profit.

Irish Examiner reporter, Caroline O'Doherty, travelled to Burkino Faso with Christian Aid staff and in her report reveals the work they are doing and the challenges they, and other aid agencies, face in the growing global fight against famine and drought. 

"There is nothing there,” the people say, warning that a visit to their regional reservoir is sure to disappoint. 

It becomes clear what they mean when it comes into view. The impressively scaled Louda Dam with its 3.2 million cubic metres water capacity is empty save for a straggle of small muddy pools.

Children run barefoot across its crusting interior to the rapidly receding shallows and sift through them with strips of netting to scoop up the tiny fish that flap frantically in the warm water in futile hope of escape.

Too small to eat, they will be dried and used in stock to flavour the pots of millet and sorghum that make up the staple diet of the region.

It is the last days of February and even these last residues of moisture will have evaporated within a week. There will be no rain until June.

It was not always like this. Although small by modern standards, the Louda Dam in north-central Burkina Faso was a landmark development when its construction was completed in 1959 and the surrounding lands it fed were a showcase of agricultural productivity.

“It was, in terms of rice production, a model for the country,” says Ousseini Sana, an adviser with local development group, ATAD, the Alliance Technique d’Assistance au Developpement. “It supported 200 villages, about 250,000 inhabitants, from Kaya to Korsimoro,” he continues, surveying the expanse of flat land in all directions, “providing drinking water, water for livestock, for irrigation, for construction.

“Fishing was good here. The children did not need nets. You just held out the ends of your shirt in the water and the fish jumped in. There was cod, carp, and lots of small fish.”

LONG READ: Bar keeps rising in the global battle with drought

Now, he says: “It hasn’t had good water for three years,” although ‘good’ is a relative term because even at its best, the dam is getting just two-thirds its former bounty and in the bad years, barely half.

2012 was a bad year with very poor rains, severe food shortages, widespread hunger and more than a ripple of panic as memories of previous lethal droughts came rushing back.

Periodic droughts have been a feature of life in this part of the country for as long as anyone can remember.

They came to the notice of the western world in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a succession of bad years led to famine, claiming tens of thousands of lives and forcing one-in-three of the population of northern Burkina Faso to migrate south.

Some of the aid agencies that arrived to help alleviate the crisis, stayed to help build defences against the next one.

Christian Aid was among the organisations that established a presence in Burkina Faso at the time and the Irish Examiner travelled with local staff to see the kind of work they have been supporting through organisations like ATAD, and the challenges they face.

One statistic sums up the latter. Burkina Faso was last year ranked the seventh poorest country in the world – coming in at number 181 out of 187 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index.

Most of the countries that occupy the lowest positions in the index are war-torn or riven by internal conflict. It says much about the level of underdevelopment of peaceful Burkina Faso that it keeps them company.

After 40 years in the field here, you might think development experts would have the measure of the challenges the country faces and could plot a fairly secure route to progress.

But in those 40 years, they have found the bar keeps rising, constantly threatening to undermine their efforts because in those same four decades, the climate has been getting drier.

In any region entirely dependent on subsistence agriculture, any loss of rainfall is a problem but in this part of West Africa, it may be catastrophic.

The northern half of Burkina Faso falls within in a geographical zone called the Sahel, an extensive band of land up to 600km wide in places that stretches for 5,400km from coast to coast across Africa, taking in portions of ten countries .

It lies directly beneath the Sahara Desert and in fact Sahel in Arabic means ‘coast’ or ‘shore’ because it is seen as the last region of regular land before the vast sea of Saharan sand.

But it is far from regular. It is classified as semi-arid – not quite desert but much, much drier than the savannah lands it gives way to on its southern borders.

And for seven searing hot, dry and dusty months of the year it is little more hospitable than its forbidding Sahara neighbour.

The rains here come from June to September – although the start and end dates have been getting closer to each other.

Planting of the main crops – millet, sorghum, peanuts, maize and local bean varieties - takes place almost as soon as the first drops fall, they are cultivated quickly and the harvest is finished in October.

From then to the following June, the remaining vegetation becomes progressively parched and shrivels to desiccation, while the land sets hard and barren once more.

This part of Burkina Faso is not alone in the world in having a short growing season but it has an added problem.

Prosper Zombre, a professor of soil science at the University of Ouagadougou in the country’s capital, explains.

“The soils are naturally poor. They lack organic matter and they have an inadequacy of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium – all essential components. Those are what I shall call dead lands,” he says.

“ No production can stand because the soil has now become like concrete. It is hard, it is impermeable, nothing can seep through – no organic matter, no nutrients, not even any micro-organism. Those are the criteria of dead soil.”

And yet, as he acknowledges with anxious admiration, around three million of Burkina Faso’s population of 17 million people are living in this dead zone, prising growth out of it, their lives dependant on it. “Peasants have no choice,” he says.

How they do the seemingly impossible is down to relentless back-breaking effort and some of the lowest-tech farming methods ever introduced to a developing country.

One of the most transforming methods is in use on Harouna Zalle’s land though it takes a trained eye to spot it.

The 37-year-old husband of two and father of eight from the village of Saye in the far north of the country, has adopted what is locally called the rock belt or bund technique and at close inspection it is possible to see that he has laid rows of small rocks and stone across his flat and near featureless farm.

They look arbitrary but in fact they are precisely positioned based on his observations of which way the water flows when the rains come.

Previously when the downpours hit the solid ground, the rain slid off along the path of the slightest incline and disappeared into a distant river or gathered in some hollow where, frustratingly for a bone dry land, they caused flooding.

Either way, the water was lost because there are no irrigation schemes here, no pumps and no way of holding onto this precious resource. The fragile top layer of soil was lost too, washed away in the flow along with whatever few nutrients it may have absorbed from the previous season’s crop.

Harouna’s rocks changed all this. Although no more than few inches high, his rock belts act as little dykes, disrupting the flow of the water and holding on to it long enough for the surface soil to soften and allow the moisture soak in.

Over time, rough grasses have seeded themselves between the stones and although they turn to straw once the rain stops, their roots remain, helping hold the belt together and reinforcing the barrier.

“It was just bare land,” he says of the sizeable but almost worthless plot he inherited from his father.

“At the beginning I did just 50 square metres with rock belts. I was really doubtful, really sceptical.”

That was in 2006 and he has since expanded his network of belts to cover three hectares, encouraged and advised by Reseau MARP, another Burkinabe development organisation supported by Christian Aid.


It is painfully hard work, not least because, in this impoverished land, even rocks are hard to come by.

Harouna points in the direction of hills too distant to see to explain where he collects his stones. .

Unsurprisingly, his neighbours thought he was crazy.

“At the beginning when I started, nobody was here to encourage me. They were just telling me, you know how sterile this land is – what pro

duction do you expect out of this land?

“But in the very first year at the end of the rainy season, my harvest was very good.”

His success had some unpleasant consequences. “People started coming out and saying I had robbed the land, that it was their land.”

The village elders were consulted and ownership was traced back and eventually confirmed as legitimately belonging to Harouna.

He insists, however, that the dispute has left no bitter legacy and in fact he has become one of Reseau MARP’s model farmers, showing his neighbours how to improve their own land.

He is also a key member of the village’s Food Security Committee which, with the help of Reseau MARP technical staff, has been learning how to measure the rainfall to know better how much is left to come, how to vary planting accordingly and how to maintain their cereal bank.

It is essential they pull together like this for the hardship that is ever-present is evident in some of the children of their mud-hut village who show clear signs of malnutrition.

LONG READ: Bar keeps rising in the global battle with drought

Harouna struggles to quantify how the rock belts have changed his farm. “There is too much difference,” he says. “I have seven sacks of maize and three sacks of sorghum at 100 kilo each in the cereal bank. I haven’t sold it yet.”

In the Sahel, having grain in storage three months after harvest is a triumph. For many, the crop can’t be harvested fast enough because there have been long, lean months in the run-up and it is required immediately to feed the family and to sell at market for desperately needed cash.

Being able to hold some back means there is both food in reserve and produce to be sold when the difficult months return and supplies to the markets are running short, pushing prices higher.

None of these measures are foolproof, however. In the punishing heat where daytime temperatures never fall below 30 degrees and frequently exceed 40 degrees, the growing crops need regular watering and any significant gap between falls of rain during the wet season can prove disastrous.

Harouna dug a reserve pool to capture rainfall but without any pump or irrigation system, he is left to water his crops by bucket if the clouds remain sealed for day or more. He couldn’t do it quickly enough in 2013 and lost a significant part of his cornfield.

Rock belts work best in conjunction with another technique known locally as the Zai system of planting.

A technique used in other parts of the Sahel generations ago, it was revived and brought to Burkina Faso in the 1980s where it is gradually gaining in popularity – although it will never be liked.

It involves excavating many small uniform pits in the rock hard ground, creating depressions 20-40 cm across and 10-20cm deep so that the land looks like a giant bun or muffin tray that you buy in a bakeware shop.

Once dug, the pits are filled with whatever stalks, leaves or other organic matter is available to act as compost and fertilizer.

Termites are attracted to these small compost heaps, helpfully breaking them down in a way that releases nutrients.

After the first rainfall, the compost is covered with a thin layer of soil and the seeds are sown in

the middle.

Some studies have shown that not only do the crops improve with this method, but in 3-5 years, there can be as much as a 30% increase in the organic matter and nitrogen content of the soil

But it is cruelly difficult work. A single hectare can take between 12,500 and 25,000 individual pits and the United Nations Environment Programme has calculated that it takes between 30-70 person days per hectare to dig and another 20 person days per hectare for the composting.

The half moon system is another option and although it is not suitable for all crops, it can be particularly useful where there is a slight slope in the land.

At the bottom of the incline a sizeable rock belt is laid and across the land, larger pits are dug in half moon shapes, again filled with organic matter though the seeds are planted in separate holes.

As the rain falls, it rolls down the incline and into each pit, hopefully retaining enough water to hydrate the growing crops.

Both methods are hugely labour intensive and must be repeated season after season in this region where the luxury of being able to simply plough and plant is alien.

It takes the labour of Harouna, his two wives and his younger brother to prepare his land and he says not everyone in his village has the strength, stamina or familial support to take on the task.

LONG READ: Bar keeps rising in the global battle with drought

He remembers a time when farming did not require such extraordinary effort. “I was born in this region. It was not that dry. The land got dry especially from the 1990s.

“ I remember that when the rainy season started in June, it would rain regularly until the end of October and part of November. Sometimes now it does not start until July and it is finished by the end of September.”

Those personal observations explain climate change to farmers like Harouna far better than the science behind it although back in Louda, Ousseini Sana of ATAD says organisations such as his are at pains to explain to people what is happening so as to try to stop them blaming themselves.

“There have been workshops on climate change but generally people believe it is because people are not respectful to their traditions, that they are no longer doing the right sacrifices. Some of them say they have been cursed,” he says.

A shrine has been erected close to the dam and people with animist beliefs sacrifice chickens there in the hopes of appeasing the spirits.

“Only the literate and intellectual people understand that those responsible for climate change – the polluters, the developed countries – are not from here,” Ousseini Sana says.

“The peasants can not make that link so they are blaming themselves. It is their misbehaviour and their bad relations with God which have resulted in such kinds of punishment. This is what they think.”

It is perhaps not surprising because in the past, they have faced blame for their struggling landscape, being told that they over-grazed, they over-populated, they felled too many trees, they slipped into monoculture instead of maintaining the diversity that would have nurtured the soil.

According to the theory, by altering their landscape and damaging their environment, they brought about climate changes which in turn further degraded the landscape and environment which in turn intensified climate change. They were at the centre of a vicious circle of their own making.

Certainly some farming practices have exacerbated the problems but farmers do not deliberately deplete their land. Lack of education plays a part but lack of choice is the main problem.

“Our model of agriculture is like a mining type of agriculture. We are taking everything from the soil and putting nothing back to it,” says Halidou Ouedraogo, head of livelihoods and food security with ATAD.

“As recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture, after a certain amount of cultivation the land should be rested for five years but this is not respected due to the lack of farming land.”

LONG READ: Bar keeps rising in the global battle with drought

ATAD and Reseau MARP are working with women in particular to establish small market gardens around traditional wells in the few months immediately after the harvest while there is still enough water to support lettuce, tomatoes, onions and other plants that not only provide extra food and a source of income, but put back into the soil some of what the main crop takes out.*


Professor Prosper Zombre also believes there is potential to better nourish the soil through retaining the straws of millet and maize for composting and use as fertilizer.

“Unfortunately those materials which could have been used as nutrients are used for other needs such as in roofs for houses, to feed animals, and also as fire for cooking,” he says.

“Those practices need to be stopped but that requires education and it also requires that we find things to replace them – other sources of food for animals, another source of energy for cooking – if they could ever be affordable to farmers.”

Probably the most vicious part of the vicious circle theory is the attempt to lay blame on people who are suffering the consequences of actions over which they have no influence.

According to the United Nations, the average citizen in Burkina Faso emits just 0.11 tonnes of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas responsible for climate change.

In Ireland we produce 8.94 tonnes per capita – 81 times the average Burkinabe - while in the United States, the figure is 17.56 tonnes – 160 times more.

Yet the effects of climate change are felt far more dramatically in Burkina Faso than in richer, developed countries.

In the development sector, the buzz words of recent years have been climate justice but climate injustice seems a more accurate description.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported last year that rainfall had reduced by 20-40% in the Sahel since 1968 and temperatures had increased by 2-2.5%.

“The decreasing rainfall and devastating droughts in the Sahel region during the last three decades of the 20th century are among the largest climate changes anywhere,” it said.

It stressed: “Modelling studies suggest that Sahel rainfall has been influenced more by large-scale climate variations than by local land-use change.”

The IPCC’s projections are worrying with temperatures expected to rise another 2 degrees in the next 20-40 years and by up to 4 degrees by the end of the century.

Even if the rains stabilise, the hotter climate will intensify the drying of the land and increase the demands on the scarce water.

The only positive note is that malaria rates – currently very high in Burkina Faso - are likely to fall because mosquitoes prefer a damp environment.

On the flip side of that, there is a prediction that heat related deaths will rise, particularly among children.

LONG READ: Bar keeps rising in the global battle with drought

Burkinabes in the south-central and southern parts of the country face bad news too because the IPCC says the Sahel shifted 25-35km southwards between the 1970s and 1990s and that the move is continuing. Meanwhile their cousins furthest north are losing ground to the expanding Sahara.

These movements of landscape have an inevitable consequence in the movement of people too.

Burkina Faso loses many of its most able young people to neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire where they provide cheap labour for the large cocoa plantations and other agribusinesses.

Internal movements are also taking place with increasing migration to the cities, in particular to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s fast-growing and underdeveloped capital city.

All around the city’s edges arrivals from the countryside have set up home in makeshift shelters which they hope to slowly replace with mud-brick buildings.

City authorities embarked on an ambitious programme to provide services to what they call the ‘spontaneous zones’ a few years ago but most still have no electricity, running water, sanitation, waste collection, schools, clinics or other basic facilities.

In the dry season, sourcing water is difficult. In the wet season, the ground turns to mud and rivers of rubbish and human waste wash through the fragile homes.

Work is extremely hard to come by, poverty is rife, prostitution prospers in the dark maze of disorderly lanes and traffickers have found easy pickings among the vulnerable residents.

City life at this level is not an appealing prospect but neither is toiling endlessly in an environment that threatens to force farmers to run ever faster just to stand still.

Professor Zombre has some suggested solutions but they have more to do with political science than soil science.

Up to 1984, Burkina Faso was called Upper Volta and the name is a giveaway. The mighty Volta River that provides the main river system in neighbouring Ghana rises in Burkina Faso.

The three strands, the Black, White and Red Volta – known locally as the Monhoun, Nakambe and Nazinon rivers – all run separately through Burkina Faso before converging in Ghana.

So there is water available to Burkina Faso but lack of critical infrastructure means it is not exploited.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the three rivers have an irrigation potential of 100,000 hectares or 1,000 square kilometers – four times the land area currently irrigated.

Only the Nakambe rises in northern Burkina Faso but the distances to the others in the centre and south-west would not be insurmountable if advanced engineering techniques were applied.

In fact, if the best engineering available was applied, says Professor Zombre, a sophisticated network of modern dams, reservoirs, rainfall catchment projects, ground water extraction systems and irrigation schemes could be created.

His eyes light up at the thought. “Voila! You have your solution,” he says, though pipe dream would be a more accurate description.

The huge cost of reducing Burkina Faso’s dependence on rain-fed agriculture is prohibitive in a country ranked at number 181 in the human development index.

Gold is the country’s most valuable natural resource but the mines are largely foreign owned and the profits are repatriated abroad.

Cotton is the next biggest export and while most is grown by indigenous small-holders, prices for the crop have been falling and the controversial conversion to genetically modified cotton is now being blamed for increasing production costs for growers, reducing their already narrow margins.

An assessment by the International Monetary Fund in late March reported that economic activity had “slowed markedly” in Burkina Faso last year and tax revenues has reached only 80% of what was projected.

Challenges would continue this year, it said, with continued slumps in the prices of both gold and cotton, along with an unfavourable exchange rate and high import costs.

Foreign investment has also slowed owing to the uncertain political situation that has prevailed since last October when a day of protests led to the departure of the president after a 27-year rule.

An interim government has been in place since while preparations are made for general elections this October.

Nowhere in this scenario is there the vast sums of money that would be required to overcome the effects of climate change.

But what are the alternatives? Could or should mass resettlement of the most vulnerable communities be considered?

“It is a question I have asked myself,” Professor Zombre says. “It is the ideal thing but there are questions in relation to culture and social matters. People prefer staying where they are in their homeland, even if that will mean dying.”

Some resettlement has been tried already when people were encouraged to move to lands adjacent the massive Bagre Dam which was built in the 1990s in south-central Burkina Faso.

But the project has been mired in controversy and mismanagement as much of the land and irrigation rights have been given to large scale agribusiness, turning people who were formerly independent landowners, albeit of unproductive land, into labourers for private companies.

Professor Zombre laments the lack of accountability in government. “Our civil society is very weak,” he says. “We don’t have the right to call up the Burkina Faso government and tell them to respect their commitments.”

However, he adds: “But we can support NGOs to undertake such action in terms of lobbying.”

Lobbying is a key part of Christian Aid’s work and the organisation keeps the pressure on at national level while its partner organisations deal with the practical issues locally.

Mathieu Ouedraogo, president of Reseau MARP, stresses how critical those issues are. “After the drought in the 1970s, there was a population movement to the west and south of the country.

“All those who had money to pay for transport moved away and the poorest and least able to deal with the crisis were the very people who had to face it. The poorest were left behind.”

That’s how it remains – the poorest people working the poorest soils, utterly dependent on the poorest rains to assist them.

But not all believe they have the poorest prospects. Back in Saye, Harouna Zalle looks around his three-hectare farm with still months of digging ahead and speaks with a quiet pride.

“I have another two hectares for my sons. For four years I have been enriching it. Today it is our generation that is being supported but I would like that support to be given to the next one.

“We are moving from one step to another. With support we can move ahead and we will be able to undertake many things by ourselves.”

For Harouna, at least the dream of making a life on this land refuses to die.



Christian Aid has its roots in the aftermath of World War II when church leaders in Ireland and Britain met to decide on a humanitarian response to the European refugees who had lost everything in the conflict.

They called their efforts Christian Reconstruction in Europe but stated their purpose was not to evangelise, but to ease suffering for ordinary people.

Their work expanded in the years that followed, moving beyond Europe to the developing world, and the first dedicated fundraising Christian Aid Week that would later give the organisation its new name, was held in 1957.

It has continued annually since and last year it raised é14 million from the public in Ireland and Britain.

The money helps Christian Aid help some of the poorest people in around 40 countries worldwide by supporting local partner organisations in those countries with direct funding and/or training and expertise.

In Burkina Faso, it has partnered with eight local and regional development organisations working with the shared goal of combating hunger and poverty among the most vulnerable communities. They do this through a wide range of projects encompassing soil conservation and recuperation, water catchment, improved farming techniques, market gardens, shea butter production, microfinance schemes, income generation and solar energy among others.

In times of greatest need, they also provide direct food aid and work programmes to tide families over until the next harvest.

They also have a strong focus on community development and assist and guide the establishment of village organising committees, cereal banks and other communal facilities, as well as women’s groups.

Globally, Christian Aid is campaigning for action on climate change, details of which are available on the homepage of the christianaid.ie website.

Christian Aid receives multi-annual funding from Irish Aid. Details and expenditure reports can be found in the About Us section of the website.

Christian Aid Week this year runs from May 10-16. Information and details of how to donate can be found at caweek.ie and donations can also be made by phoning 01-9015035.



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