Three decades of increasingly patchy rains and drought are taking a heavy toll on the people of the Sahel nations, the semi-arid countries strung along the southern fringes of the Sahara, according to a group of scientists and specialists on climate change.
“We’ve noted an increasing number of extreme events across the Sahel, where you can have heavy rain all of a sudden then nothing for several weeks,” Arona Diedhiou, a research fellow at Senegal’s Institute for Research and Development (IRD), said after a weeklong seminar on climate change organised by the Amma-Afrique project.
The European Union-funded multidisciplinary programme, involving 450 specialists in different fields from 20-odd nations, is looking at the impact of climate change on people and production.
After almost three decades of drought in the Sahel region - which includes Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan - experts believe that the timing of rainfall is as vital as the quantity, Diedhiou said.
“Wind and strong rains wash out the earth,” he said, with the increasingly heavy rains in the area “causing flooding, much erosion and a deterioration of the soil.”
The longer and longer periods between rainfalls meanwhile have a negative impact on agriculture. “Seeds sprout when the first rains arrive, but then wilt due to patchy irregular rains, which means farmers will plant afresh with seeds taken from their reserves or else borrow money and then find themselves in debt,” he said.
The Sahel, which has a sparse savannah vegetation of grasses and shrubs, receives around 20 centimetres of rain a year, mostly between June and September.
The longer dry periods between rain are also affecting water quality and creating new health risks, in particular cholera outbreaks, the experts said.
Thierry Lebel, a physicist at IRD, said the 30-year-long drought in the Sahel, which he described as “the biggest climatic anomaly observed to date”, was triggering major social changes for the countries in the region.
"In Niger, groundnut production has almost disappeared, and the same change is underway in Senegal,” a country where groundnuts are a major foreign exchange earner.
“These are countries that depend on agriculture but that have little irrigated land. Drought therefore has a direct impact on people,” he said.
Diedhiou said the long years of drought had placed more pressure on land use and ownership in Niger. "Because of desertification in the north, herders are moving south, triggering often violent conflicts with farmers.”
Infrastructures designed before the onslaught of drought in the 1970s were also proving inadequate. “Most of the hydro-electric dams no longer work, or at least not at full steam, meaning there’s less energy available.”
But policy was as much to blame on current problems as patchy rains, the experts said.
"The Sahel has as much rain as Israel but uses only three percent of water resources,” he said.
In one policy initiative, the government of Niger has promoted irrigation in orchards where farmers cultivate traditional crops as well as produce fruit for the market.
The EU was financing Amma to help improve weather forecasting and the understanding of the impact of climate change, said Georgios Amanatidis, scientific officer for the European Commission. "West Africa is sensitive to climate change,” Amanatidis said.
Amma was looking at how to fine-tune forecasting while looking at effects of climate change as far-reaching as medical fallout, said Diedhiou.
"We already have seasonal forecasts reliable enough to know whether it’s going to be a dry year or a wet year, but political leaders want to know when the season will begin and how regular the rains will be. We must improve our product but we are beginning to see results,” he added.
An Amma team was planning to study the link between desertification and meningitis, which is endemic across the Sahel, by working on a study of dust in Niger in January.
“We aim to work on early warning,” he said. “We will get people ready for vaccination campaigns when we know when and where people are in danger and where they are not.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions