This climate catastrophe is happening in front of my eyes – but a ‘great green wall’ offers some hope
At first I couldn’t understand what the young woman was doing kneeling alone in the middle of a dry river bed.
But drawing closer I realised she was using her hands to dig for water.
It’s the rainy season in Ghana and this shouldn’t be happening.
The young mother, Faustina Banasco, used to be able to fetch water from the River Akunle all year.
But no longer.
Now it is choked with the sandy top soil blown off the nearby fields; fields which have been stripped of trees by the local farmers who need the land to grow crops to feed their families.
This is the price of deforestation.
And in Northern Ghana, where most people live off the land, there is nothing to mitigate its impact.
Ghana is losing forest faster than almost any other country in the world: field by field, year by year. It has lost a third of its trees in 20 years.
Its population growth is also growing faster than most places too: more than 2% a year.
So it is grappling with less land and more people.
And when that’s combined with the higher temperatures and less rainfall that climate change brings, the result is catastrophic.
And in Ghana this isn’t the warnings of some dystopian future.
I can see it happening in the collapsed and eroded landscape NOW.
Faustina has five children to feed and provide for.
Sometimes she says the hunger pangs are worse than the thirst.
In the next village, the elderly chief, Apika Adudi, tells me he is “around 100”.
He says he remembers when the soil was better, and the river ran all year.
Life for his 10 great grandchildren, he worries, is becoming harder when it should be easier.
His 60-year-old son, Mbole Agurugo, shows me the farm he has had to abandon because nothing will grow there anymore.
His wife, Philomena, tells me she has to walk 20 miles to buy food for her five children because the soil is now so poor.
Their community is trapped in a cycle of poverty – and they are ambitious to escape it.
In Britain, we know that deforestation adds to the rising temperatures globally, but I am now seeing first-hand how it causes misery locally, trapping thousands in grinding poverty.
The soil is now so degraded in this part of Northern Ghana because of the lack of trees, that crops are failing and the land can no longer support the increasing number of people trying to live off it.
“It’s an emergency - a natural disaster. But because it unfolds slowly it isn’t getting the attention it needs,” says one of the workers from Tree Aid, a British charity encouraging tree planting around the world.
In Ghana, charity workers planted a million trees last year.
In the next four months, they expect to plant another 250,000.
Felling trees has become illegal, which is progress.
Yet the attempt to halt deforestation also makes life harder for the poorest whose daily needs are acute.
Many people here chop trees down for firewood or to make charcoal to sell.
And the Government isn’t consistent; timber remains one of Ghana’s main exports and a new deal with China will allow the Chinese to mine for bauxite and remove millions of trees in exchange for investment in infrastructure.
In the east of the country, in Iwulido, I watched as more than a hundred local volunteers planted thousands of cashew seedlings along the bank of the river Daka, in an effort to stop it running dry.
They sang and gave thanks as they worked.
This is part of an African-led initiative to build what is being called “the great green wall” spanning 8,000 kilometres across the width of Africa to help protect some of the poorest places on the planet from deforestation, and the rest of us from climate change.
It’s a start.
But the increasing soil erosion and land degradation is happening now and the new trees will take years to grow.
In the meantime, Ghana’s problems - the poverty, the population growth, the drought and rising temperatures - are becoming more acute and more urgent.
Not just for Furstina, a long way away searching for water in a dry river bed.
But for all of us.
More from our Earth on the Edge series: