Not all walls are built to divide us: In Africa, the world’s longest wall is setting its people free

By Tina Birmpili, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

Across Africa, the world’s longest wall is being built. Not a wall to keep immigrants out or oppressed people in. Rather, a wall to unlock the potential of millions of people in the Sahel.

This is the Great Green Wall – an African-led initiative that the entire international community should throw its weight behind. To unlock the finance that will allow the wall to deliver on all its goals, however, we need to change the narrative in a diverse and vibrant region that is often dismissed as a lost cause.

A wall worth building

“The Great Green Wall is a wall worth building. A wall that brings people together, not one that pulls them apart. A wall that insulates, not one that isolates. A wall that protects our collective existence. A wall for the environment—a wall for the planet.”

African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina

The idea behind the Great Green Wall is simple but its scope is vast. The initiative targets the planting of an 8 000-km long and 15-km wide mosaic of trees, grasslands, vegetation and plants across the Sahara and Sahel. This project hits every target we desperately need to hit in this era of planetary crisis.

The wall slows climate change at a time when the science is warning us we have a 50% chance of exceeding 1.5°C of global warming in the next two decades. Once complete, it will sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon. This might not make up for a shortfall in climate action at COP26 but it shows the massive potential of land restoration as a climate solution.

The wall reverses desertification and land degradation at a time when climate change, nature and biodiversity loss is threatening food security. Once complete, it will have restored 100 million hectares of degraded land in the 11 countries of the Sahel-Sahara region, making it a great climate change adaptation solution.

The wall provides livelihoods and reduces poverty and hunger at a time when we are struggling to make any headway on the Sustainable Development Goals. Once complete, it will have created up to ten million jobs.

This may sound like a pipe dream. It may sound like one of the many projects we have all read about, in which we pluck unrealistic numbers from thin air that are difficult to be attained. But the Great Green Wall is real. It is being built. It has already made gains.

Progress slow but accelerating

Since 2007, 18 million hectares have been restored and 350 000 jobs created. This is still far off the target, granted, but the wall is now gathering pace. This year, the Great Green Wall Accelerator, whose coordination is within the secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, got off the ground to address the biggest stumbling block to faster progress: finance.

The Accelerator got off to a great start when eight financial partners pledged USD 19 billion to the 2020-2025 Great Green Wall strategy at the One Planet Summit 2021. So far, 48% of the envelope has been engaged in the form of commitments, contracts and disbursements – which is a great effort in nine months.

The Accelerator is pushing for commitments for at least USD 4.3 billion per year – the level of funding needed to achieve the restoration of 8 million hectares of land each year and make it to the 100-million-hectare target by 2030. We are not there yet. The total funding committed for 2021 is around USD 3 billion, 25% more than 2020 but still under the requested amount. So how do we secure the funding we need? The answer lies in changing the narrative.

A region of potential, not despair

When the Sahel region appears in global media, we often hear the same refrain: extremism, terrorism, conflict and poverty. Yes, the region has challenges, many of them linked to a changing climate and dwindling resources. But this vast, dynamic and diverse region of Africa is so much more than its challenges. The Sahel has a population of over 300 million people, who are increasingly urbanising. This offers opportunities for economic diversification, livelihoods and value-chain development.

The Sahel is a huge untapped reservoir for solar and wind energy. A lot needs to be done to start drawing on this energy, given the lack of infrastructure. But this work creates opportunities for skilled jobs, better livelihoods and economic returns. And, of course, a renewable energy revolution would benefit the climate and the region’s energy security.

That the Sahel has the largest river systems of West Africa brings not just the chance to add hydroelectric energy to the mix. These rivers, if used smartly and sustainably, can bring life to arid lands and boost food security in the region.

But the rest of the world doesn’t hear about this potential. What we get on repeat are narratives about extremism, terrorism and conflict. Our task is to start changing this narrative. To stop highlighting insecurity and start highlighting potential. We need people to talk about how the Sahel can transform itself. About how to use the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel and the UN Support Plan for the Sahel to help the region achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The beauty of changing the narrative is that it will create a self-reinforcing cycle of improvement. Much of the unrest comes from poverty and lack of opportunities. If we can start to improve the economic situation through a better narrative, we can dampen the unrest. Then the positive narrative takes care of itself.

If we can change the narrative, it can spark raised ambition, action and investment from political leaders, businesses and investors – not just for the Great Green Wall but also for other people- and nature-positive developments, delivered in partnership with local communities and based on the needs and knowledge of the region.

The Great Green Wall is an amazing project. It is showing that we can reverse the damage humanity has done to the planet by deploying integrated solutions that tackle climate change, nature loss and land degradation at the same time. It is showing that we live in an era of hope as much as an era of despair at the state of our climate. If the international community gets fully behind this initiative and starts to implement others like it, we can transform our world.