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Last Updated: Monday, 10 December 2007, 15:18 GMT
Timbuktu's climate change fight
Women farmers by a eucalyptus tree plantation near Timbuktu

By Celeste Hicks
BBC News, Timbuktu

As the Bali climate negotiations draw to a conclusion, farmers on the frontline of climate change, around Timbuktu in northern Mali have been turning the desert green.

Unpredictable rainfall and deforestation have seen the Sahara Desert encroach on the historic town over the last few years, but now irrigation projects are helping farmers to fight back.

Zeinabi Maiga of Kabara co-operative
The men always used to take decisions for the family, now the women are also making a contribution
Zeinabi Maiga

Timbuktu is fortunate to be just a few kilometres from the massive inland delta of the River Niger, and draws water from vast underground aquifers - bodies of permeable rock which transmit water.

A women's co-operative in the village of Kabara, south of Timbuktu, is using these water sources to plant eucalyptus trees.

They nurture them for two years after which the trees can then survive almost without rain.

In a region where the annual rainfall is less than 400mm, reforestation is essential to put nutrients back into the soil, and to prevent erosion by the harsh desert winds.

Beans

Despite some scientists' concerns that eucalyptus trees can drain large amounts of water out of the soil, Daouda Diarra from the World Food Programme in Mali says they are a good choice in the desert environment.

"Eucalyptus is especially recommended for its rapid growth and the protection it gives against strong winds," Mr Diarra says.

A rice paddy near Timbuktu
A small corner of the Sahara Desert has become a paddy field

"In dry zones, a five-year-old tree's root system actually pumps water back into the water table."

The co-operative's president, Zeinabi Maiga, says they can now grow beans and other vegetables on land which was previously useless.

"Before the co-operative project started, our husbands were always away from home looking for work," she says.

"But now they don't have to go because we can grow food here."

Mrs Maiga says there have been other benefits too: "The men always used to take decisions for the family, now the women are also making a contribution."

Startling green

Just down the road from Kabara is a canal built by the Libyans, which diverts water from the river to help the community grow rice.

map

In an area that is brown and lifeless as far as the eye can see, the startling green of the young rice shoots is a remarkable sight.

Working in neat rectangular plots, the women farm 16 hectares with the help of a motorised water pump and a tractor.

They are just beginning their first-ever harvest and current projections suggest that they will get about 4.5 tonnes of rice per hectare.

Elsewhere in the Sahel, simple innovations such as building a mound of earth around a field can make a dramatic difference by containing the water that does fall as rain.

Early warning

Farmers in the village of Syn near Mopti have used this technique to harvest 72 tonnes of rice this year.

The desert around Timbuktu
Annual rainfall in Timbuktu is less than 400mm

All this goes some way to showing that an area which is always precariously balanced on the edge of self-sufficiency can continue to support a population if scarce resources are well managed.

When WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran visited northern Mali last month, she said she was confident that thanks to fairly decent rains and some of these innovations, the food security outlook for this year was pretty good.

"We now have science and technology to help us create sustainable food systems in all climates," Ms Sheeran said.

She said that the Sahel region now had a drought early-warning system which allowed agencies to predict regions which will suffer from poor rainfall, almost down to the village, nine months in advance.

"We know that's a better choice than environmental migration, because it's much harder to deal with people when once they've moved away to towns and cities which can't support them".



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