In the East African nation of Burundi, the rainy season begins in October. After many dry months, rain once again starts falling onto farms and crops, pouring into the currents of the Nile River, and slapping the surface of Lake Tanganyika.
Yet despite the long-awaited precipitation, as well as the country’s abundant natural resources, this nation remains in the grip of a water crisis.
Of the over 11 million inhabitants of Burundi, almost 40% do not have access to safe drinking water in less than a 30 minute trip from where they live. In 2017, according to UNICEF, more than half of the population did not have access to basic sanitation facilities. Even in many health centers and schools, clean water is not nearby. This bears witness to the problematic reality here as in so many areas throughout the world, that water is not being distributed equitably to all communities. This shortage in coverage for water services in Burundi is due in part to destruction from the civil war, as well as the multiple changes in government within the past several decades. However, it may also have another cause: deforestation.
Deforestation has slashed the amount of trees in Burundi down to a staggering 6% of what it once was. Why? With the majority of citizens working in agriculture, many forests needed to be cut down to clear the land for farms. Far from happening overnight, this took place over many generations and under multiple foreign occupations and changes in leadership. Major crops such as coffee and tea account for a significant amount of the nation’s exports, and they are vital to a strong economy. Yet an even larger aspect of agriculture in Burundi is subsistence farming. This is the type of farming in which individual families grow their own food. These farmers are resilient, hardworking, and dedicated to providing food for their families and neighbors. However, in this process of subsistence farming, the soil can easily become stripped of nutrients if not given enough time to replenish itself through rest or carefully selected crop rotation. Unfortunately, the very trees that were cut down to clear land for more farms are proving to be quite critical components in the overall sustainability of healthy soil, air, economic systems, and even clean water.
Effects of Deforestation
- Loss of Biodiversity: One of the most irreversible consequences of deforestation is the loss of entire species of animals and plants that rely upon the trees in order to survive. In Burundi, the eucalyptus trees, acacia trees, fig trees, and oil palms all interact with multiple other species. For some, these trees are their home. When their habitats are removed, these creatures can perish. For others, these trees provide food, shade, water, or concealment from predators. Without them, many animals face starvation, exposure, and thirst.
- Climate Change: Trees naturally expel oxygen into the atmosphere, and take in carbon dioxide. As the number of trees dwindles, carbon dioxide levels increase, thus contributing to a higher level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. These gasses re-radiate heat in the form of infrared radiation back to earth, causing rising temperatures that can be harmful and even deadly to many different forms of life.
- Soil Erosion: When extensive amounts of trees are taken from the land, soil becomes much more vulnerable to erosion. Tree roots are no longer anchoring into the ground and stabilizing it. When rain or winds come, healthy soil is displaced or washed away, leaving behind ground that is less able to grow healthy crops and sustain agriculture.
- Loss in Freshwater: As soil erodes, silt often deposit into rivers and streams. These feed into lakes and eventually can lower the quality of the local water. The presence of forests also helps to regulate the flow of rivers in both rainy and dry seasons, which reduces water scarcity. Without these forests, the dry seasons become drier and more dangerous. The Institute for World Economics predicted that droughts would increase in severity as the climate continues to change, and warns that the deforestation of trees drastically impacts the hydrologic cycle. Evapo-transpiration accounts for nearly half of all rain generation around the world. With less trees transpiring water into the atmosphere, even the rainy seasons produce less and less rain.
Resilience and Hope in the Youth of Burundi
In the face of these challenges, the citizens of Burundi have not been silent. In 1980, the government of Burundi founded national parks, in order to conserve and protect wildlife. This also has helped boost the economy through the promotion of tourism, so that visitors could travel into the country to admire the beauty within it.
As a nation of many young people, with the country’s median age being between 17 and 18 years old, we are seeing the youth rising up in their creativity, advocacy, and determination.
UNICEF recently partnered with Cartendo and 14 other youth organizations to challenge Burundian youth to create innovative solutions to problems surrounding COVID-19. The winning ideas were given financial awards so that they could be turned into real actions within the local communities of the winners. 670 solutions were submitted and 5 were endorsed as prizewinners, including a rainwater filter design by 16 year old Johanna Bizindavyi, and a new online platform for distance learning by 16 year old Chanelle Iteriteka.
Also during this time of COVID-19, a major hygiene manufacturing company, Savonor, partnered with humanitarian groups to offer discounted rates on their soap so that it was more easily accessible to all who needed it. The company also chooses to only use palm oil in their products that has been extracted sustainably under strict environmental standards while also paying fair prices to farmers. It is admirable to see a company like this, who could easily have inflated prices for soap and hygiene prices as the need for them surged, decide instead to lower their prices while still sourcing their ingredients ethically. Even in the uncertainty of a pandemic, hope is still being found.
While some are addressing the current needs of a world battling the coronavirus, others are continuing to do all that they can to create a better world for future generations by tackling climate change.
One of the most inspiring accounts of hope and sustainability in Burundi is the Greening Burundi Project. This environmental non-profit organization was started in 2018 by 25 year old Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze, and its mission is to plant 50 million trees in Burundi. They have already planted over 256, 738 trees, and are preparing to plant even more in mid-October.
“I initiated this project alone,” explained Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze, “And the hardest part was having a lack of financial resources. But I tried to inspire young people and now we have around 150 young volunteers helping me to plant the trees. We plant native trees, agroforestry trees, forestry trees, as well as fruit trees.”
When asked about the importance of trees, Niyoyabikoze answered, “A tree is a natural climate solution. Here in Burundi, we suffered from deforestation. The reports show that in 1990, the forest cover was 57% but in 2018, it was 5.6%. If nothing is done, we will fall into desertification. The main activity in Burundi is agriculture, and this desertification caused soil erosion, soil infertility and the agricultural production became insufficient. Poverty occurred and malnutrition and diseases increased. That is why I started Greening Burundi to reforest my country.”
With a passion for positive change, Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze is motivated by the fact that trees are absolutely crucial to the well-being of the planet and future generations. They combat climate change, increase the quality of the soil, provide habitats and food for many creatures, and even improve the amount and quality of freshwater available to local communities.
To invest in and support the inspiring youth of Burundi like Niyoyabikoze is to water a seed. And make no mistake: from these seeds, hope is growing.
At Business Connect, we love to hear these stories of sustainable work to alleviate the water crisis. If you would like to be involved in projects like this one, you can partner with our friends at Connect for Water or Greening Burundi.