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Natural Awakenings

No Rain: African Savannas Hold Clues to Drought Relief

Oct 31, 2012 12:14PM

This year, much of the United States has experienced the most severe drought since the 1950s, prompting governors to declare emergency conditions. There is no guarantee that the crisis will be alleviated, but new research points to a way that farmers may be better able to cope.

In the hotter, drier climate of the semiarid African savanna, flowing between the Atlantic Ocean and Red Sea, farmers have successfully fought back an expanding Sahara Desert and turned once dry, uncultivated scrub into highly productive farmland. The key to success is allowing trees to grow where they once cut them down, and adopting agricultural techniques that take full advantage of scarce water resources.

Experts claim that today’s American farmers should recognize the benefits that trees can bring to even the most arid plots of land. Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist at Free University Amsterdam, who has worked in Africa since 1978, observes, “Given the situation in the U.S. corn belt, these practices might help farmers in Kansas and Iowa adapt to more extreme weather and help make their crops more resistant to drought.”

Adding more trees, planted in rows between crops or bordering fields, could provide many of the same benefits found in Africa: improved soil and water quality and windbreaks that keep dry topsoil from going airborne. Fallen leaves and twigs inject nutrients into the soil, reducing the need for expensive fertilizers that can also pollute nearby streams or wells. Trees cool temperatures on a local scale, trap carbon and clean the air. Their roots are natural filters between fields and waterways and can help keep soil moist. Plus, tree fruits and nuts provide food for farm animals and wildlife. It’s an Early American agriculture tradition worth revisiting.


Find more information from the USDA National Agroforestry Center at nac.unl.edu.

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