African farmers and climate change are combining to damage soil at a rate that may plunge the continent, home to about 1 billion people, into chaos as food production declines.

"The situation is very severe and soil fertility is declining rapidly," Jeroen Huising, a scientist who studies soils at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT, said today in an interview. "Many countries like Kenya already don't have enough food to feed their population and soil degradation is worsening an already critical situation."

Africa, where half the agricultural soil has lost nutrients necessary to grow plants, is hampered by a lack of information about soil conditions, Huising said. About 236 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, or one in three there, are chronically hungry, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

A soil project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa will use mapping techniques and geographical information systems to help farmers and government officials choose the best options to improve agricultural land and slow the degradation of farmland, Cali, Colombia-based CIAT said in an e-mailed statement.

"Soil management in sub-Saharan Africa must be improved dramatically if we are to reduce poverty, feed growing populations and cope with the impact of climate change on agriculture," said CIAT's Nteranya Sanginga. The project, the African Soil Information Service, will help address climate change as well, Huising said.

Global warming is melting polar caps, raising sea levels in some parts of the world and inundating coastal farmland while in other regions climate changes have reduced rainfall, making soil more alkaline and spreading drought.

Water Woes

Pressure on freshwater resources, which make up 1 percent of the world's total water supply, is increasing as the global population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion people by 2050 from 6.7 billion now, according to UN estimates. As aquifers and rivers dry up in Africa and the Middle East, soils are also being destroyed by higher salt levels.

Last year, prices for staple foods reached records as production of biofuels, manufactured largely with corn, soared. The World Bank warned that civil disturbances may be triggered by rising food prices in more than 30 countries.

African food aid convoys have been attacked and supplies meant for local populations have been taken by rebels.

Civil unrest in Somalia has led to kidnapping of foreign aid workers. Masked gunmen killed a World Food Programme employee in Somalia, Executive Director Josette Sheeran said on Jan. 6.

Last year, at least 40 humanitarian or human rights workers were killed in Somalia, according to the human rights organization Amnesty International. Somalia is in its 18th year of civil war.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeremy van Loon in Berlin at