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Building peace in the Sahel with ‘the Great Green Wall’

UNDP-supported initiatives are linking environmental protection, social inclusion, economic opportunities and building peace in a region ravaged by desertification and climate change.

When it started in 2007, the Great Green Wall (GGW) was envisioned as a tree-planting initiative to restore Africa’s degraded landscapes and transform millions of lives in the Sahel. Initially targeted across 11 Sahelian nations, the campaign was built to halt the progress of the Sahara desert, which has grown by 10 percent since 1920.

The goal was to plant billions of trees across 8,000 kilometers that would become a living symbol of Africa’s commitment to address the climate crisis and usher in a new era of sustainability and economic growth.

With the urgency of the climate crisis coming into focus, the initiative has significantly evolved in the past decade. They are planting trees but have also recognized that tree-planting alone is not enough.

The initiative also fully recognizes the importance of natural resources governance as a key tool for stabilization and peace in the region. This is reflected through its priorities of “growing a reason to stay to help break the cycle of migration” and “growing a symbol of peace in countries where conflict continues to displace communities.”

In recent years the initiative has received increased traction from the international community, donors and the UN system, with a clear understanding that the restoration of ecosystems and improved natural resources governance will have far-reaching environmental, social and economic benefits at both the local and global levels. And in turn, these benefits will serve as catalysts for the peace-building and sustainable development processes that are at the heart of a large range of initiatives and donor priorities across Africa, and the Sahel in particular.


UNDP is supporting the countries connected with the Great Green Wall to advance climate change and natural resource governance priorities set by the initiative. With UNDP’s support, vulnerable nations across the region are designing innovative and far-reaching interventions that focus on landscape restoration and protection, the introduction of resilient and energy efficient practices to reduce pressure on natural resources in case of climate shocks, providing reliable access to water for agriculture, livestock and household consumption, improving transboundary water management, or sensitizing stakeholders and planning for the peaceful sharing of natural resources.

UNDP supported interventions are aligning with the expanded mandate of the Great Green Wall and are yielding important social and economic benefits by supporting the development of micro, small and medium enterprises and improving the access to financing mechanisms (such as loans and insurance) for vulnerable groups. In leaving no one behind, there is a strong focus on women and youth.

By relieving pressure on natural resources, mitigating risks from climate change, and providing new livelihood opportunities, these initiatives are reducing the causes of conflicts and insecurity in the Sahel, which can be directly linked to increased climate risks, poverty, insecurity, displacement and other factors.


The Great Green Wall covers countries where 60 to 75 percent of the population is employed in agriculture (such as the Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger). With climate change causing droughts, floods and disrupting weather patterns, lives and livelihoods are being put in the crosshairs. Human pressures on natural resources – in particular water abstraction for irrigation and wood for energy – are increasing throughout the region. Experts are linking these pressures on natural resources with conflicts and even the rise of terrorism and insurgency in the region.

In the Lake Chad Basin, the Komadugu Yobé river cuts across 6 states in Nigeria and the Diffa region in Niger. Unplanned development works in the upstream portion of the river in Nigeria are causing significant changes in the water regimes downstream in Niger due to the reduced infiltration capacity of surrounding modified riverbanks.

The Lake Chad Basin Project, financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) has initiated talks to increase the communication and cooperation between representatives from the different Nigerian States and the Diffa region to improve the management of water resources and systems.

“Niger was raising concerns about the release of large quantities of water by Nigeria since 2012, but didn’t have the adequate platform to communicate with the responsible decentralized authorities. The exchanges organized as part of the project are reducing the risks of future conflicts in a volatile region and ensuring the implementation of the Water Charter, including with the protection of rivers and riverbanks,” says Diawoye Konté, the project manager.


Another frequent cause of conflict in the Sahel concerns competition over grazing land between pastoralists and farmers. In the Niger Basin and Iullemeden Taoudéni Tanezrouft Aquifer System (NB-ITTAS), a UNDP-GEF project, implemented by the Niger Basin Authority (NBA) is introducing pastoral corridors to clearly delineate areas dedicated to herders movements that avoid the destruction of agriculture areas and important ecosystems, while ensuring herders have access to needed fodder and water for the livestock.

“The link between land management and conflict management is strongly intertwined in the 11 countries of the NB-ITTAS, the project ensures farmers and herders can discuss to identify the areas to be used as corridors and to get approval from all the stakeholders. Without the corridors, the livestock tramples and smashes everything on their way, while the introduction of corridors provides accessible organic fertilizer for fields,” explains Allomasso Tchoukoponé, the NB-ITTAS project coordinator.


In Senegal, a UNDP-supported project financed through the GEF’s Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) – Promoting innovative finance and community based adaptation in communes surrounding community natural reserves – is also working closely with farmers and herders to introduce pastoral perimeters, with year-round fodder for the livestock. This gives the opportunities for herders to settle and avoid long and strenuous journeys.

“Herders don’t travel because they like the greener South, they travel in search of fodder for their livestock. Some herders will continue to travel with their livestock, but some will prefer the option to remain home. Traveling hundreds of kilometers is highly energy and resources intensive, with often poor diets during the journey. In addition, travel routes frequently pass through fields, with the livestock eating from the production or trampling yields, sometimes leading to violent altercations between herders and farmers,” says Moussa Fall, the project manager.

“Everyone observed that, with land degradation, youth do not have access to livelihoods and are more easily enrolled by terrorist groups. In addition, population movements, escaping conflict areas, lead to further land degradation, by putting pressure on available natural resources. This leads to conflicts between the different users such as fishermen, farmers, herders and displaced people,” says Diawoye Konté. “The LCBC project will sensitize stakeholders, through local NGOs, on the shared use of natural resources to prevent the risk of conflict.”


Besides establishing improved natural resources governance and dialogue, UNDP-supported projects also directly contribute to the protection and restoration of ecosystems. In Burkina Faso, a LDCF-financed project was recently approved to restore the Nakambé basin, which provides important water management services to communities, farmers, fishermen and pastoralists.

“The restoration of land, defined through strong community engagement and implemented through cash-for-work activities, are having environmental, social and peace benefits for people in the villages,” explains Clarisse Coulibaly, team leader for environment in UNDP Burkina Faso. “Communities will be split into groups, with different zones of intervention, and share the production and revenues between different groups. The works conducted will increase the yields and ecosystem services in the Nakambé basin, while strengthening social cohesion in the village. In addition, by offering job opportunities for youth, they will be less likely to work in gold mines or to get enrolled in jihadism.”


Nevertheless, improved natural resources governance will not be the only solution to peace building in the Sahel, and UNDP is working alongside other stakeholders on stabilization. This includes more comprehensive programming, as is the case in the region of Mopti in Mali where a GEF-financed project was recently approved to restore ecosystems for peace building and will be part of a larger climate security programme with funding from the Government of Denmark.

UNDP’s work with governments, local partners and a large range of stakeholders such as the Pan-African Agency of the Great Green Wall will remain fundamental for the scaling-up of these efforts, providing the building-blocks for sustainability, and a long-term vision for peace in the Sahel, Africa and beyond.

Story by Clotilde Goeman