ALBAIDA, Sudan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The women of Sudan’s North Kordofan state used to be famed for their war songs urging men to defend their meagre desert assets of cattle, bush and watering holes.
Now, in villages like Albaida, surrounded by deep orange sand dunes, women chant odes to protect their environment from a new enemy: climate change.
“Oh lemon tree, I plant you because you are good for climbing, so that I can get enough phone signal to send my love messages,” sing a group of a dozen women sitting under a lalop tree, tapping upturned buckets as percussion.
Over the past year, people in this village of 300 families have planted around 9,000 trees to try and stop the advance of the “gezan” (sand dunes) aided by disappearing tree barriers and desert storms blasting through the grass-thatched houses.
“Now it’s getting better – we don’t wake up and find sand covering everything,” said farmer Maryam Mohammed Quoreshi.
Quoreshi remembers when people did not have to walk far to find clusters of trees to provide fodder for animals.
Farmers were wealthy because “there was enough rain for every living thing”, and they tapped plentiful, thorny acacia trees for gum arabic.
But a series of intense droughts, which started in 1984 and lasted several years, killed most of the desert-hardy acacias and turned farms to dust.
This caused men to migrate north to search the desert for gold, harvest dates, or scour the capital Khartoum for odd jobs, as families waited for them to send money home.
“We never had any plans - you’d just wake up in the morning and deal with that day,” Quoreshi said. “You’d live in a constant state of anxiety.”
Villagers said the area never recovered from those years of ruin, and that temperatures have been rising and rainfall fluctuating since, causing further desertification.
North Kordofan state suffers from extreme fluctuations in rainfall, which varies from 150 mm (5.91 inches) to 450 mm per year, leaving incomes vulnerable to frequent drought cycles, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Eltigani Khalifa Mukhtar, director of administration at North Kordofan’s Ministry of Agriculture, said rain patterns started changing around 15 years ago, causing widespread crop failures every three years that led to mass hunger.
“Some people migrated, some people died – especially children,” he said.
In some of the villages he has visited in recent months, “there are one or two men left – that means in some villages, more than 90 percent migrate”, he explained, adding that an estimated 2 km (1.24 miles) of arable land is lost to desert each year.
To stop desertification, the government has embarked on reforestation projects, planting 2 million trees – mainly acacia – over the past two years, and aiming for 30 million within five years.
Mukhtar hopes this will rehabilitate the gum arabic belt and “create a barrier to shifting sands covering all our state”.
Since November 2014, UNDP has launched pilot climate change adaptation projects in seven villages across North Kordofan to further the national reforestation programme and build community resilience more widely.
In Albaida, UNDP has established tree nurseries and planting programmes, and installed solar water pumps to feed vegetable gardens run by women.
The two-year project has educated people about the role of trees in protecting fertile top soils from heat, erosion and sand.
“We were told we shouldn’t cut trees to make the environment better, and we have been noticing that the weather has improved and the sand is not moving like before,” said Quoreshi.
A cooperative of 60 women, divided into groups of ten, now grows potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins, carrots, okra and greens year round, most of which they sell to trucks from the nearby town of Bara and state capital El Obeid.
Sudan is applying to the Green Climate Fund for financial support to scale up similar climate change adaptation projects across all nine states.
In addition to the songs penned by women to celebrate each type of tree, the community has come up with strict rules and punishments to protect them.
“It is forbidden to cut trees,” said villager Omer Nourin, clasping his wrists together to show what happens if you can’t pay the fine handed down by a committee tree-fellers are brought before. “You have to go Bara prison.”
The community has allowed some villagers to languish in jail for weeks, while their relatives try to raise the money to pay the fine – anywhere between 500 to 1,000 Sudanese pounds (about $77-$155) – to get them out.
Government official Mukhtar and other climate change experts take a similar line towards developed countries, whose higher greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the warming of desert areas where summers can now surpass 50 degrees Celsius.
“The rich countries made the problem, so they have to help us solve this,” he said. “Whoever pollutes the environment has to pay.”
Reporting by Hannah McNeish, editing by Zoe Tabary and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org