NGOUMA, Northern Cameroon, Feb 15 (IPS) – The village of Ngouma has a population of 538 people, 406 of which are women. Most of the men, especially those who can still work the fields, have left in the face of land degradation and even desertification.
"Stock breeders are migrating to grazing areas and fishermen are going north to Lake Chad, which is only nine kilometres away. Those who do not have fixed employment are going to the cities," Yaya Djouldé, the village chief, told IPS.
Ever since the early 1970s, Ngouma and other villages in the province of Maroua have only received about 200 millimetres (mm) of rain annually, says Martin Ndongmo : an agroforestry engineer who works for the Maroua delegation of the Ministry of Environment and the Protection of Nature. The national rainfall average is 1,500 mm.
"This water shortage has led to great degradation of arable land. Deforestation and overgrazing have come to finish off nature's work," Ndongmo told IPS, noting that the average temperature in the shade is 45 degrees.
In the face of long, dry seasons – which last for seven to eight months of the year – those who earn a living from agriculture seek their fortunes elsewhere.
"Our husbands and children have left one after the other, leaving us to survive here alone. We walk about eight kilometres every day just in search of water, which is often unclean," says Chantal Moudeina, a 41-year-old resident of Ngouma.
Her children are only 11 and seven years old now, but she is under no illusions about the fact that they too will go away from this semi-arid place and poverty-stricken place as soon as they are old enough to work – if the situation does not change.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ministère de l'Agriculture et du Développement rural, MINADER), 11,421 of the 34,263 square kilometres that make up Maroua's surface area have been affected by desertification.
MINADER observes further that this has resulted in 25,000 people in the region being threatened by famine.
"Seasonal migration, problems between cattle breeders and farmers, food insecurity and waterborne diseases noted in these areas are, for the most part, the consequences of desertification," says Lucie Aboudi of Save the Earth, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Maroua.
Government has taken steps to combat desertification. After the first signs of drought between 1969 and 1974, a committee was set up to address desertification and drought, recalls Martin Mbella: a geologist at the National Geographic Institute in the capital of Yaoundé.
"The Permanent Agropastoral Project tasked with promoting the rational management of grazing ground, and the Cereals Office to manage cereal stocks for times of shortage were the result," he said.
These efforts have yet to impress civil society.
"One can create committees for each ecological catastrophe, adopt action plans or sign conventions, have the best of intentions – but if the financing does not follow and if the state is not determined to act on the ground, then desertification will cause yet more disasters," an indignant Pauline Akamba, who teaches primary school in Kousseri in the extreme north of Cameroon, told IPS.
The situation in Ngouma appears to justify NGO concerns.
During the dry season, residents of the village use a mulching technique which entails covering the soil with straw in order to protect it from the sun's rays û something which is already delivering positive results in the Sahel, particularly in Burkina Faso.
But in the absence of solid support from the state or NGOs, these efforts are failing to gain traction – to the sole benefit of the desert, which just doesn't stop advancing, says Djouldé.
Villagers also build dams to retain water and prevent the soil being washed away during the rare rains. However, these are easily destroyed by wind.
And, even as desertification encroaches on arable land, it eats into national wealth. According to the Centre for International Co-operation in Research for Agronomic Development, based in Yaoundé, desertification causes a loss of 0.8 percent of gross domestic product.