A finite resource: soil
Watch this animation to learn more about the importance and benefits of soils and the hazards currently facing them.
Planting trees on farms, increases the capacity of soils to hold water.
Terracing land vastly reduces soil erosion and encourages maximum water absorption into the land.
Diversifying crops (in this case mangoes and sukima) balances soil nutrients and makes the most of limited water resources.
Between 19 and 23 April, the international community celebrated Global Soil Week, highlighting the importance of land and soil to achieve vital development goals. This year, Global Soil Week received more attention than usual, as 2015 has also been nominated the Global Year of Soils, and for good reason.
Essential for life
So why is soil so important? Simply, without fertile soils no food can be grown: soils are the basis for more than 90% of worldwide food production. According to FAO calculations, one eighth of the world’s population – that’s around 842 million people – are suffering from hunger today. The situation is especially critical in southern and eastern Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa.
Rural areas are the most severely affected with 75% of people living there suffering from hunger. These poorest people often have to secure their survival from soils of the worst fertility, due to degradation of the land for which they themselves are not responsible.The problems are particularly acute in those regions where shortages of water and land coincide with processes of soil degradation, namely in drylands.
Gone with the rains
For the dryland communities we work with, trying to survive without fertile soils is not an apocalyptic vision of the future, but a daily reality right now. Due to population growth and increasingly extreme weather events, their soil has been degraded, baked dry and washed away by severe droughts followed by heavy floods.
Once soils have been degraded to such an extent, it takes many years to regenerate. For example, an inch-thick (2.5 cm) layer of fertile humus soil takes approximately 500 years to form on farmed land. With 24 billion tons of fertile soil lost to erosion every year, these trends should worry us all.
However, not all is lost. Sustainable land management methods that enrich the humus content of soil, through mulching, agroforestry and inter-cropping increase the storage capacity of the soil for water and nutrients, and promote organic activity in the soil. This makes the soil less prone to erosion and more resilient to extreme weather events, even in the short-term.
The dryland communities we support practice a variety of small-scale soil conservation methods on their land, and the results can be astonishing. By planting trees on their farms, they increase the capacity of soils to hold water. Growing the right variety of crops balances soil nutrients and makes the most of limited water resources, while terracing their land vastly reduces soil erosion and encourages maximum water absorption into the land.
With these simple methods, farmers have been able to successfully grow mangos, bananas and tomatoes for the first time in years and are now well on their way to regenerate their land into sustainable fertile farmland for generations to come.
I hardly harvested anything before, but now you can see what is happening: The maize has outgrown the others because the Dolichos improved the nutrient level of the soil. Terraces have also done a great thing for me, water used to flow from the road through the farm, washing away all the seeds and crops after germination. Now, today, the water sinks into the soil.
Mutezi Mwilu, Munathi self-help group, southeast Kenya.