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Backgrounder on the Sahel, West Africa’s poorest region

[Mauritania] Typical settlement in the Mauritanian Sahel belt.  [Date picture taken: 07/14/2006]
Typical settlement in rural Mauritania. Primary education got a boost from the MDGs but quality is said to be falling (Nicholas Reader/IRIN)

Underdevelopment and humanitarian crises in the Sahel region of West Africa will be under the spotlight this week as Jan Egeland, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Conflict, travels to Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to draw attention to the impoverished region and the social pressures climate change is causing there.

Where is the Sahel?

The Sahel, a word derived from the Arabic ‘sahil’ meaning shore, is a semi-arid belt of barren, sandy and rock-strewn land which stretches 3,860km across the breadth of the African continent and marks the physical and cultural divide between the continent’s more fertile south and Saharan desert north. The Sahel belt varies from several hundred to a thousand kilometers in width, covering an area of just over three million sqkm.

Read our recent reporting → Sahel in flames

In West Africa the Sahel is also a geopolitical entity. In 1973 the Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) was formed by Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal to group countries that were then becoming interdependent.

Between them, the CILSS members cover 5.7 million sqkm of land. Sahel-like terrain and climate is also found in non-CILSS members in West Africa, particularly the north of Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Ghana.

Sources and further information
Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS)
UNEP - Climate Change and Variability in the Sahel Region
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The Oakland Institute - A Case Study of the 2005 Food Crisis in Niger
ActionAid – Why Do Food Crises Persist in the Sahel?
Climate change poses humanitarian challenges – top UN official
Humanitarian cost of climate change understated

Who lives in the Sahel?

CILSS countries alone are home to around 58 million people, the majority of them subsistence farmers, sharing similar cultures and livelihoods even while their religions, languages and customs vary widely.

CILSS estimates that more than half the working-age population in the Sahel is engaged in or dependent on agriculture and is responsible for more than 40 percent of the region’s collective gross domestic product (GDP). Dryland crops such as millet, sorghum and cowpea, and cash crops such as groundnut and cotton are the predominant agricultural produce.

The population is growing very quickly in the Sahel. According to CILSS, there will be 100 million people in the region by 2020 and 200 million by 2050 – almost four times the current population. More than half of them, 141 million, will live in the three countries Egeland is visiting: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

What does climate change mean for the region?

Scientists have differing opinions on whether the Sahel is going to get wetter or drier because of climate change, but either way the outlook is bleak.

The climate in the Sahel swings between extreme heat and more temperate conditions, with rain only falling in four or five months of the year, usually between May and October when the growing season gets underway. For the rest of the year, the landscape comprises rocks, sandy plains of bushes, grass and stunted trees.

However, scientists and meteorologists say over the past 40 years there have been increasingly pronounced peaks and troughs in the region’s annual rainfall, meaning some years are excessively wet and others too dry for adequate crop production.

Whether the climatic patterns of the Sahel are caused by global warming, or are as a result of naturally occurring and cyclical rainfall patterns - and indeed whether overall rainfall is increasing or decreasing - are subjects of scientific dispute.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says most climate models for the Sahel do predict drier conditions for the future.

UNEP says that even if the Sahel does get wetter, the overall warming of the atmosphere will result in the evaporation of more water than even the most optimistic scientists have estimated the region’s rainfall could increase by.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body of over 2,000 climate scientists around the world tasked to evaluate the risk of climate change caused by human activity, likewise concluded that the West African Sahel and Central Africa will experience some of the highest temperature increases anywhere in the world over the next few decades.

Rainfall is just one part of what makes climate change important in the Sahel. In a region that relies heavily on agriculture, the quality of the soil is critical. Land degradation caused by deforestation, overgrazing, continuous cropping, desertification, and the use and preservation of existing water resources are also crucial.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says over 80 percent of the land in the Sahel is degraded.

What are the humanitarian implications?

Even minor changes in growing conditions in the Sahel have major implications for people’s food security and nutrition. There are already extremely high levels of malnutrition in the Sahel, even in years when rainfall is adequate, with children under five bearing the brunt of hunger and disease.

Studies cited by UNEP state that because of changing rainfall patterns and degraded land, Chad and Niger could potentially lose their entire rain-fed agriculture by 2100, while in Mali cereal harvests might decline by 30 percent.

Rain is a problem when it falls as well as when it does not. Annual rainfall is often now coming in short, intense bursts that destroy crops and seeds, and even wash away whole villages, as happened throughout the Sahel in 2007 but particularly in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad. Scientists believe the region is likely to become much more flood prone

Another social problem is working-age adults are increasingly leaving the countryside and migrating to urban areas - such as Bamako in Mali, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Dakar in Senegal - causing new urban sanitation, hunger and crime problems.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that increasing temperatures will lead to more epidemics such as dengue and cholera. However, one positive outcome for the Sahel is that the IPCC predicts that large parts of the region will become unsuitable for malaria transmission by 2050.

In the medium and long-term, the scale of the forecasted climatic problems in the Sahel coupled with the region’s huge population growth indicate that humanitarian aid alone cannot meet the needs of the affected people – particularly as the Sahel is likely to be competing for emergency funds with increasingly frequent climate-related natural disasters across Africa and Asia.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 2007 asked donors from the developed world - which it says have focused on climate change mitigation projects at the expense of helping countries already affected by climate change - to provide US$85 billion for adaptation projects in developing countries around the world.


Read more IRIN Sahel reports

SAHEL: Climate change impacting hard on semi-arid Sahel nations

SAHEL: Strategic shift in battle against region’s hunger

SAHEL: Poor markets mean hunger in year of plenty

SAHEL: Flood season starts but not where it should

SAHEL: Aid organisations part of the problem, NGO report says

SAHEL: IRIN focus on plans to improve road links

NIGER: Hungry for help: Food crisis in Niger (film)

MAURITANIA: Struggling to cope in pre-harvest lean season

MALI: Urbanisation fuelling begging on streets of capital

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:

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