Tanzania: ‘Seawater is coming into our farms and killing the plants’
The water from the wells in Kisakasaka used to be so salty that it would turn people’s teeth yellow. Children, no matter how thirsty, would often refuse to drink. But with no other water source in this farming village near Zanzibar’s capital Stone Town, around 1,000 residents were forced to drink increasingly salty water that gave them headaches and nausea.
“It was very difficult at the time and the children complained a lot about the water, but they had to drink it because there was no other option,” said Pili Issa Moussa, a mother-of-five and local resident.
People’s problems were compounded when more and more crops started failing and animals started getting diseases as the seawater crept further inland and spoiled or washed away fertile soil.
“There are some areas where even the coconut trees started to die,” said community leader Khatib Ali.
The villagers formed a non-governmental organization to fight the effects of climate change and save their village from being battered by the winds and seawater advancing unimpeded due to the lack of tree barriers.
To adapt to the rising sea levels, more erratic rains and deforestation causing land degradation and erosion, the group decided to reforest and restore the mangroves, which act as a barrier against floods and storm surges.
The villagers have to cut down some trees to live and make a small living, whether it be for firewood, timber, or charcoal. But they also know that depleting the forests around them could mean the end of having any kind of fresh water and food production on which to survive.
“Because we live on an island, if we don’t conserve the mangroves correctly, the ocean will come and wash away the village,” said Ali.
Restoring mangrove forests
A project to plant and protect 250 hectares of mangrove forest, backed by UN Environment, the Tanzanian government and partners, has educated people about climate change and trained them on how to adapt to it.
“We have already covered 50 hectares and we are still going,” said Ali.
With support from the project, the villagers planted eight hectares over the course of one year starting in April 2017. The effects are already reversing Kisakasaka’s problem of encroaching seawater.
“The concentration of salt has been reduced now so the water is okay,” said Moussa, mother-of-five, holding a fistful of long, green seeds.
She noticed the change after about three years of planting, which she and her teenage children would do every Saturday for around three hours.
“I feel so proud when I see how much the people here, the livestock and our environment have benefited from our planting,” she said, sticking more green darts into patches of sand.
To protect the forest, the group carries out patrols during the morning and afternoon low tides. They persuade people to reduce or stop activities like charcoal-making and pursue livelihoods like agriculture and fishing, which have rebounded with the growth of the mangroves.
“We hardly had any mangroves or shade, now the trees are getting big and there are species coming back to the shallows. The soil is so much better,” said Moussa.
She grows tomatoes, okra, spinach and other greens in soil that is so fertile, “You can plant things now and they shoot up,” she said. The rehabilitation of the mangrove forest has also restored breeding grounds for fish and crustaceans in the shaded shallows.
“Before, we would catch about 20 crabs, but now we get 50 or 60,” said Moussa. “Instead of cutting wood, people are doing more farming and we plan to start beekeeping soon, because the mangroves have grown thick enough to have hives and bring bees.”
Years of mangrove replanting are also paying off for around 3,000 people living on Kisiwa Panza, another island in the Tanzanian archipelago.
The problems of seawater intrusion to farmland and residential areas have become so severe there that UN Environment has supported community planting of mangroves and the construction of two 20-metre-long sea walls.
“Since we built them, we have managed to save the land used by 50 households,” said Cletus Shengena, a project coordinator working for the Tanzanian Government.
“The crop harvests really suffered from the seawater—the bananas and cassava failed, and we had real problems with meals, sometimes only eating once or twice a day,” said Sada Ali Faki, who lives near one of the sea walls and planting areas.
Before these projects, Faki spent five years watching her eight children go hungry and become too listless to play sport at school or concentrate on studying.
“When the children ate two meals a day, they got very weak and were not healthy,” she said. “Now that we have the wall, I expect to harvest more crops and they will get stronger.”
Farmer Kombo Makame Ali, age 45, has watched the weather change since his childhood, with higher temperatures and shorter rainy seasons. But Ali has also seen how communities have the power to make or break their own livelihoods by protecting the environment and adapting to the changing weather.
“Climate change has come but people have accelerated it by cutting down trees, so the seawater is coming into our farms and killing the plants,” he said. “Since we got this wall and started planting mangroves, we have started growing crops in areas we could not previously use.”
Despite the hard work in the sweltering heat and glare of Kisiwa Panza’s mangrove forests, children regularly volunteer to join in the planting.
“The children now know about conservation and in their own time they go and collect their own seeds and plant trees along the coast,” said Ali. “When we see the area going green, we feel very happy about our work.”