Aligned with the company's long-held goal of being the world's premier environmental and natural resources consultancy RPS Group Plc's ten year collaborative "donor - technical adviser" relationship with TREE AID, the UK registered charity, has grown into something fairly unique. Their collaborative efforts have finally been recognised with a Business Charity Partnership Award by Third Sector Magazine in March 2016.
Together RPS and Tree Aid have been building resilience to climate shocks among vulnerable communities in Sub-Saharan Africa: "Climate resilience" is how prepared a system is to withstand weather extremes, without losing ability to function properly. These "systems" could be ecosystems or social systems. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to the world's poorest countries, Niger, Mali, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and on its southern border the desperately poor regions of Upper East and Upper West Ghana. Within these regions, the communities based in the drylands live in the most extreme poverty. In these areas, the impacts of climate shocks, like extreme drought and extreme flooding, is arguably greater than anywhere in the world.
The RPS-TREE AID collaboration during 2015 on the Greening Mopti Project in Mali and the Bongo River Trees Project in Upper East Ghana both demonstrate how important building resilience to climate shocks is in these regions. The Greening Mopti project in Mali has seen the planting (and/or the protected natural regeneration) of over one million new trees over the three years within 15 communities in Southern Mali. That project was 15% match funded by RPS Group Plc over three years up to 2015 (£87,000 over three years). The European Union paid for the remaining 85% of the funding though RPS' continued participation was a condition of the EU's institutional investment of over half a million Euros in the Greening Mopti project.
In Bongo District in Upper East Ghana, RPS is entirely funding the 'Bongo River Trees Restoration' project over five years (to 2017). RPS has also designed and technically supervised the construction of four Community Weirs and provided ecological, remote sensing, erosion mapping, land surveying and hydrological mapping expertise free of charge as well. RPS also funded the creation of irrigation boreholes for several project tree nurseries; the planting of 60,000 trees along river banks including orchards of economic benefit to the engaged communities; the cultivation of livestock resistant hedges and the propagation of non-invasive Indian vetiver grasses for natural erosion protection. The environmental, educational and socio-economic benefits to the 18,000 subsistence farmers living within the two river project catchments in Bongo are there for all to see. In March 2016, Third Sector magazine recognised the extraordinary work undertaken in Bongo by awarding RPS Group Plc and Tree Aid a joint Business Charity Award.
Tree Aid – RPS project case study:
Bongo River Trees Restoration Project (TREE AID-RPS)
February 2012 to February 2017
As riverbanks in the Bongo District of Upper East Ghana have become eroded, there has been a reduction in the quality of land, the availability of water resources and a silting up of rivers. The environment is increasingly challenging for subsistence farmers because of the increased incidence of flooding, mostly in the rainy season, and the lengthening dry seasons with very occasional flash floods. This has further degraded the soil, and the loss of tree cover has made savanna forest resources scarcer. Rivers, vital to sustaining life in the area, have gradually become choked. The silt from eroded riverbanks is washing downstream into the main Vea Dam, which provides water for Bolgatanga, the regional capital of Upper East Ghana. This is drastically reducing the quality of the water across a wide area defined as part of the greater White Volta river system.
The Bongo River Trees Restoration Project, launched in January 2012, is working with 15 village communities in a 72km² project zone of Bongo District, currently home to 18,000 people. It will restore riparian tree cover along 30km of riverbank along the Agansy and the Nabakulga rivers to reduce flooding and reverse soil erosion. These trees will also improve water quality, land quality and biodiversity along the rivers, and provide income generation opportunities for local farmers. Riverbank restoration is done by creating ‘buffer zones’ on either side of the river, where land is carefully managed. These are divided into three distinct belts, with the area closest to the river becoming a protected site for enrichment planting. Beyond this is a belt to be used for controlled farming, assisted agroforestry and tree orchards. Further still will be an agricultural belt, where farmers will receive training and support in sustainable agricultural practices that conserve soil moisture and improve fertility. They will be supported to establish private woodlots and to produce fodder for their animals. Large-scale tree planting is only possible in this dry climate because of the weirs built through the project.
In 2013 and 2014, studies were carried out to identify optimal locations for the construction of weirs. In the spring and early summer of 2015, three weirs were constructed and by mid-March 2016 the fourth weirs was completed.
Project success has been dependent upon the participation, understanding and engagement of the communities and farmers involved, who are agreeing to give up scarce agricultural land at the edge of the riverbank. New income generation opportunities from nurseries, woodlots and tree products; training in improved agricultural and agroforestry techniques; and the future environmental and agricultural benefits that a restored river brings, have encouraged farmers to participate. The project will plant a total of 40,000 trees of 16 species. A further 45,000 shrubs will be planted in the buffer zone. A non-seeding vetiver grass species is also being propagated and planted out to anchor soil and prevent erosion in high risk areas.
This project is generously supported financially and technically by RPS, who, as well as funding TREE AID, are providing technical expertise to assist with erosion risk mapping, land surveying, dam engineering and biodiversity assessment.
See also: www.treeaid.org.uk
The weir at the Ayopea community
The weir at the Amanga community
The fourth weir at Atampisi is finished: Cue happy celebration
Rows of vetiver grass are being planted to prevent soil erosion
RPS have provided technical expertise to assist with erosion risk mapping, land surveying, dam engineering and biodiversity assessment
The tree nursery. The water held by the weirs will help these seedlings grow into trees along the riverbanks
Community-Led Riverbank Restoration in the Drylands of Ghana –
How an Industry and International Development Collaboration is Delivering Results
”I am happy to be part of this project, which I hope will help our community to have more trees and water. I will continue to work hard to reap the benefits of the project. Thank you to all those who are supporting us.“ – Project beneficiary, Cecelia Ayambiri, Amanga Village.
It is 11am, its 42°C and there is no air conditioning. Lunch is being cooked over a blazing open fire and women and children are returning from the well, balancing heavy buckets full of water on their heads for the half hour walk in the sweltering heat. Welcome to Bongo District in Upper East Ghana.
This dry and parched region is where TREE AID and RPS have been working together on the Bongo River Trees project since 2012. The project is focussed on training and supporting thousands of local villagers to better manage their river courses and their natural water supplies. In Bongo the land suffers from severe deforestation and degradation made worse by uncontrolled grazing by hordes of livestock. Rain is infrequent and unreliable. When it does rain the land is so degraded that the sheer volume of water does even more damage to the fragile landscape.
The two main rivers in the region, the Nabakulga and the Agansy, are the main water sources for the rural population. But the badly managed landscapes have led to river banks collapsing, river courses silting up and the rivers running dry for up to nine months each year. The families who live in this region struggle without a secure water supply for many months every year. Every single day is a fight for survival for families here.
The TREE AID-RPS partnership is bringing together two distinct but complimentary sets of expertise to effect long term benefits for fifteen communities in the region. Integrating environmentally focused development expertise with environmentally focussed multidisciplinary consultancy in an innovative partnership is delivering more than just tick-box charity-CSR outcomes.
TREE AID, a medium sized International NGO, approaches development and poverty reduction through the mechanism of trees. This forestry-focused development approach uses trees for land restoration, to provide economic opportunities for families, and develop improved local rights of access to forest resources. Since 1987 TREE AID has been working with communities across Africa's drylands and has supported 500,000 people to grow over 10million trees and set up 10,000 thriving small enterprises. TREE AID works with Governments at national, regional and local levels in all the countries in which it operates, to embed the benefits of forestry-focussed development into local and national policy. Currently TREE AID is working in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Ghana and Ethiopia.
RPS Group, an international consultancy providing advice on energy, infrastructure and the built and natural environment, has been supporting TREE AID's work across the drylands since 2006, and specifically supporting the work in Bongo region since 2012.
Collaborating for impact
Severe environmental degradation and insecure water supplies are key challenges being addressed through the Bongo River Trees Project. The TREE AID-RPS partnership enables a synergy of expertise which is resulting in significant impacts for villagers in the Bongo Region.
As a result of the degraded river systems, rural families increasingly rely on boreholes for their drinking water as well as for crop irrigation, tree nurseries, tree planting sites, and livestock. In Bongo District, however, water quality in local boreholes is a concern with many young children showing acute symptoms of fluorosis. It is unclear whether this is due to an accident of geology or the result of inappropriate water treatment over time but many boreholes have been capped in recent times by government health inspectors. As a consequence the local community is resolute that sinking further boreholes is not a viable solution to increasing the secure availability of water.
TREE AID and RPS were urged by the local community to consider all the alternative options for securing water supplies to support the river bank restoration activity and improve irrigation for crops. In response, a number of expert RPS staff teams have volunteered their time to provide detailed and valuable surveys to help TREE AID make decisions about the most appropriate and impactful interventions.
RPS staff members have contributed to the project in a variety of extraordinary ways. Not only giving up their time to visit this hot, arid, and extremely poor region of Upper East Ghana, but also through desk-based data analysis. Other than satellite imagery purchased for the project by RPS in 2011 and a 1:50,000 scale map derived from aerial photography dating from the early 1960's, there was scant geographic or mapping data of the area in existence.
Working across continents and multiple RPS office sites in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Australia RPS staff have worked together with TREE AID to expertly survey, map and assess the existing land cover, soil erosion, biodiversity, topography and through hydrological modelling to identify the best opportunities for enhancing water catchment storage potential.
In Year 1 of the Project (2012), a 30m detain terrain map was procured from NASA and the RPS team at Belfast mathematically converted it to a 10m detain DEM to produce a Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) erosion map which covered the full 72 km2 of the Bongo Project zone. In addition, RPS Ecologist Joanne Wilson and Ecologist Neal Gates undertook a two week biodiversity survey of the Project Zone. The survey confirmed the limited extent and fragmented nature of gallery woodland, the limited cover of trees and scrub in open areas, and the presence of soil erosion and degradation throughout the project area. Signs of water pollution in surveyed watercourses were also evident. These findings helped to outline the severe impacts of deforestation and unregulated agricultural practices on the region.
During Year 2 (2013) RPS and TREE AID began to explore in earnest how to enhance the potential for rain-water catchment and storage. Two project communities hand built weirs in the river at Ayopea and Amanga. These weirs were moderately successful, in particular at Ayopea where water was held in the river for some weeks after the rains had passed. As a result of this small success, consideration was given to the benefits that more specifically engineered, small scale water catchment structures might bring to the landscape and the population.
Consequently a two week, topographical survey mission was carried out by RPS surveyors Lars Suchy and Stuart Tosney. The survey data was then passed to the RPS Survey Team at Leerdam which quality checked and processed the raw elevation data to turn this into linear transect shape files. The RPS Hydrology Team at Belfast then used these 2D transect shape files to greatly refine their existing 3D Digital Elevation Model (DEM). In 2014, year 3 of the Project, the focus has been on developing the potential for villagers to better harvest and store rainwater to enable a more secure water supply.
In September 2014 the Team at RPS in Belfast produced a Water Management Report detailing the best eight potential sites for small scale, community constructed, water catchment structures.
The potential for community managed water catchment offers significant benefits. A reliable source of stored water that lasts further into the dry season means villagers can successfully irrigate farmland, improve crop yields and reduce the associated labour of collecting water to feed their crops. In a region where the majority of the population rely on subsistence farming to feed their families, poor crop yields are catastrophic. In reality, most families cannot grow enough food to feed themselves year round. The families RPS and TREE AID are supporting experience hunger and malnutrition every year when their food supplies dwindle, whilst waiting for the rain so they can get the new crops in the ground. Secure water would transform daily life for these families.
A secure supply of stored water will also improve the progress of environmental restoration activity. A key focus for the River Trees Project is to restore 30 linear km of degraded river bank through tree planting and assisted natural regeneration techniques. Appropriately designed water catchment structures can enable water to be held in the river courses for longer after the rains so the new planting sites are more likely to thrive. To date, over 6,000 trees have been planted by villagers along the river banks. Not only do the saplings need robust protection from roaming livestock, watering the young trees and shrubs is time consuming and labour-intensive. The potential value of stored water to the community planting schemes is significant.
In November 2014 two RPS construction engineers, Michel de Vré and André de Wit travelled to Bongo and spent 12 days surveying the potential water catchment sites. This mission determined four viable sites which could successfully support water catchment infrastructure to provide useful supplies of stored rain water for use by beneficiary farmers and to feed river-bank restoration activity.
Mapping the Project Zone
During Year 1 (2012) of the Project RPS ArcGIS specialist Matthew Snape produced a GIS map of the Project zone. This was the first map of the area to be produced since 1965 and provided a useful resource for TREE AID to use as the project progressed. ArcGIS training was delivered to TREE AID Programme staff in Burkina Faso and software licences provided.
In Year 3, (2014), Matthew Snape travelled to Ghana to deliver additional GIS training. He also focussed on trialling and developing locally appropriate data capture tools for use in the field, as well as training on GPS waypoint logging and description. Additional training for TREE AID staff in ArcGIS and QGIS was delivered to help augment the map data held for the project to date.
Riparian planting sites, tree species planted and tree nursery sites were among the features logged and added to the project zone map. This technical support is enabling TREE AID to extend GIS mapping across all of its projects in the drylands, as well as to monitor the ongoing progress of work on the Bongo River Trees project.
A villager's view
The value of the Bongo River Trees project is best described by the villagers involved in the work themselves. Madam Linda Awuni lives in Akondo village. She is 26 years old and has been involved in the Bongo project since 2012.
“Before I joined the Bongo River Trees Project I was farming millet and peanuts in a small field but I used to get very little from my farm due to erratic rainfall and poor fertility of the soil.
Each year during the dry season I used to travel to the south of Ghana to try to find work or earn money. I took my children with me and left the village. Life is very hard during the dry season and I have to do anything I can to earn money so I can feed my children. I used to travel to the southern sector of the country in search of work during the dry period as life was usually tough around that time.
Since I joined the project I have learned many new skills. I have been involved in tree planting, building of protective walls round the young trees, weeding round the trees and watering of the trees. I have also performed nursery activities such as filling of poly pots and livestock rearing.
I have planted a mango tree in front of my house to provide the family with fruits and shade. I have also planted other trees along the river banks to protect them against erosion, and reduce silting and flooding.
The project has changed our thinking and attitude towards tree growing. We use to think that land clearing which involves removing everything including trees and burning was the best practice. However, now we can see the effects of that and how crop yields keep declining and rainfall being erratic year after year. We now grow trees.
I believe I have something special to offer to my children's children so I take part in community development to protect the natural resources for my benefit and the benefit of our future generations.
I love to see the degraded lands becoming green so I enjoy tree growing. I am sure that within a couple of years, our rivers will be protected and many benefits will continue to grow.”
RPS Group has provided c£450k to fully fund the Bongo River Trees Project over five years from 2012 until 2017. In total, fifteen communities within a 72km2 zone are being engaged to restore 30 linear km of degraded river bank. Alongside training the communities to better manage their land and natural water resources, TREE AID is supporting them to become more resilient and better able to analyse Climate Risks. Mapping their responses to these risks, and facilitating working relationships with local government and agencies is enabling local people to take more control in their daily lives and step out of poverty for the long term.
The collaboration between RPS and TREE AID is delivering the tools and skills that the local population need to build themselves a resilient future. Year 4 of the project will focus on implementing locally appropriate water catchment infrastructure, augmenting the riverbank restoration activity and developing deeper links with local agencies including the Water Resources Commission to ensure the long term sustainability of the project.