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Plants vs Sand. How the World Food Programme is helping communities use plants to stop sand dunes in Mauritania

A lone grain of sand, on its own, is completely harmless. It travels on its journey carried by the wind, by water, or even hitchhikes on a living being, barely noticed as it meanders through the landscape. When a grain of sand joins up with others to become a sand dune, it can become a force that buries villages, roads, crops and water sources. Such sand dunes can be the harbingers of a growing desert that many warnings say is the future for communities living next to these restless sand grains.

Desertification is a type of land degradation in which dry areas become increasingly arid, losing their water, vegetation and wildlife. It is commonly attributed to climate change and the changing rainfall patterns and extreme temperatures that come with it. However, this is only one part of the story. Human activities, such as overgrazing, also play a significant role in degrading these landscapes, giving sand dunes the opportunity to move in.

The good news is that if humans are part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution. Like the lone grain of sand, it is difficult for one person to stop the dunes in their tracks, but when communities come together, and one becomes many, they can create an equally unstoppable force.

In Mauritania, where three quarters of the land area are covered by desert and one quarter of the population does not have access to sufficient, nutritious food throughout the year, stopping the movement of sand dunes is critical. It is estimated that the arid zones in the country have shifted 200 km southwards between 1961 and 2001, adding an additional 150,000 square kilometers to the desert since 1970. The country is exposed to recurrent cycles of drought that result in degradation of natural resources, structurally affecting the agricultural productivity and resilience of populations. Reduced crop harvests lead to reduced incomes in rural areas, exacerbating poverty and decreasing purchasing power to buy food. read further