Growing gardens in the desert heat of Mauritania

Published: 2 May 2013 18:36 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

It is hot and the midday sun scorches the sand. Mile after mile of travel and there is not a body of water to be seen. Animal carcasses rot on the side of the road. Yet amid this harsh desert climate, among a cluster of communities, tomatoes, onions and watermelon grow.

This is Mauritania, a west African country home to three million people, more than one third of whom are hungry. The Brakna region, in the south, has the highest malnutrition rates in the country, particularly among children under the age of five.

When last year’s drought wiped out crops and sent food prices soaring, the Mauritanian Red Crescent Society and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) responded by adopting a twin track approach, delivering emergency food aid while working with communities to plan for long-term resilience.

“This approach is successful because we got communities involved from the start,” says Dennis Bariyanga, IFRC Food Security Operations Manager. “We developed a plan together, tapping into local knowledge. Then we brought in the technical expertise to help achieve our goals.”

Results include the formation of 28 women’s cooperatives, which received vegetable seeds and training on how to grow produce that can withstand the extremes of the desert climate. Three wells were rehabilitated and equipped with solar panels, making it easier to meet the water needs of people, gardens and livestock. Gardens are now flourishing, women are selling produce in the market, and generating income for their families which last year had none. And farmers, after using improved seeds, tools and farming techniques have this year harvested 90 tons of sorghum compared to just 14 tons last year.

During a visit to the area of Maghta Lahjar, IFRC President Tadateru Konoé helped distribute goats to families whose young children are suffering from malnutrition. Female goats are provided as they can produce much needed vitamin-rich milk for children. Since the programme was introduced, the malnutrition rate has dropped, down nine per cent over the past year. “I am very impressed by what I am seeing,” said President Konoé. “These combined efforts are producing healthier communities, healthier children. However, there is still more to do. The needs remain immense.”

Red Cross Red Crescent food security programming across the Sahel has assisted almost 700,000 people. A modest achievement when millions are still suffering from lack of food, but it is not an issue the Movement can tackle alone. “Our role is to assist and to complement. Real change will come from the communities themselves,” said President Konoé. “We will promote flexible use of funding and new partnerships with the public and private sector. And governments must also be held accountable. I call on the political leadership in the Sahel region to increase investment in community infrastructure and social services, and to further support their National Societies so they can fulfil their role as auxiliary to government.”

For those who have already received assistance, the results are more than theoretical. In Mauritania, one woman put her calloused hands under running water for the first time, “This water will make my life easier, my hands softer. You are helping me become a woman again,” she said.