The red hues of the Kalahari desert, meaning ‘waterless place’ in Tswana language, cover two thirds of Botswana, one of the countries most prone to drought and land degradation globally.

However, as the world continues to lose 100 million hectares of healthy land every year, the sub-Saharan country has risen as a global bright spot of land restoration, alongside the Dominican Republic, in Latin America, and Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, as reported to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

In only four years, Botswana reduced the amount of degraded lands from 36 percent to 17 percent of its territory. Especially, in the northwestern district of Ngamiland, where the Okavango Delta is home to traditional pastoralist and farming activities and to a vibrant wildlife-tourism industry.

We spoke with the director of the Department of Forestry and Rangeland Resources Baitshepi Hill on how the country is reviving its lands; why this matters to prepare for harsher droughts; and what is their vision for land and water management in the face of population growth and climate change.

Why are land degradation and drought priorities for Botswana?

We cannot afford to overlook them. Every year, land degradation driven by climate change and unsustainable practices, like overstocking, costs us an estimated USD 353 million. Conversely, healthy soils support food production and healthy ecosystems, and are better at infiltrating and storing water—crucial to recharge aquifers and reduce water run-off and topsoil erosion. By halting and reversing land degradation, we are also taking care of our water resources and protecting lives and livelihoods.

Mopipi, Botswana
Mopipi, Botswana

Botswana recently reported a remarkable reduction in the amount of degraded lands between 2015 and 2019. How did you achieve those results?

To make decisions, you need evidence, so this is where we started: we conducted an assessment to establish a land degradation baseline (36.3 percent in 2015), and then developed a monitoring system to follow degradation trends, identify hotspots, and estimate the severity of the phenomenon. In parallel, we undertook a series of initiatives to address key drivers of land degradation. For example, we stepped up efforts to manage wildfires; worked with pastoralists to keep the livestock within the carrying capacity of rangelands; and promoted the planting of native trees and grasses.

What was the outcome of those land restoration efforts?

Through this multi-pronged effort, we have succeeded in rehabilitating 70 percent of the territory that we targeted, meaning that, by 2019, we had nursed 1.42 million hectares of land back to health. Botswana has since committed 45.3 million hectares to land degradation neutrality, including measures to halt it and restoration interventions in selected hotspots.

What is next in terms of land- and drought-related actions?

We are now developing a Land Restoration Strategy to further advance our land degradation neutrality goals, and working to implement the Drought Management Plan, approved in 2021; and promoting agroforestry and alternative income-generating activities, like beekeeping, in rural households.

And how are you engaging or planning to engage communities at the frontlines of drought and land degradation?

For example, we are working with agro-pastoralists for the sustainable management of Miombo and Mopane landscapes with support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). In these ecoregions, crops like millet, maize, and sorghum are mostly grown in rain-fed areas with poor soils and increasingly erratic rainfall. Improving the management of land and water resources in these areas —including through land-use planning— is crucial to protect food and water security and to prevent forced migrations. Globally, drylands are home to more than 2 billion people and support over half of the world’s food production, meaning that what we learn in Botswana can be helpful to other countries and communities, too.

Decision-makers are typically faced with competing priorities and limited budgets. What does it take to tackle land- and drought-related challenges?

For me, the key words are commitment and prioritization: you need political buy-in to advance sustainable land management, build drought-resilience, and forge meaningful partnerships in support of those goals. Since land and drought affect so many aspects of society and the economy, you also need an all-of-government, all-of-society approach; we are moving in this direction.

How do you see Botswana contributing to, and benefiting from, the IDRA membership?

We are eager to share our experiences with the members of the Alliance and to learn from them, too. For example, we would like to learn more about the Saudi Green Initiative, and how they are planning to halt and reverse desertification. Another priority for us is teaming up with research, technical and funding partners, including from the private sector, to address drought and land degradation in pursuit of our sustainable development agenda. For instance, we would like support in improving drought forecasting models, and in ensuring that the information from early warning systems reaches local authorities and communities in a timely manner. Ultimately, it is not just about land and water —it is about human dignity. 

Opening Photo_Kalamare 2014 before_Gov Botswana.JPG