Future is Now for the Sahel Region’s Climate

January 26, 2011- By Kurt Thurber

The climate change debate in the United States and Western Europe in the short-term is about convenience. The apocalyptic results of desertification, food shortages and fallow lands are fodder for politicians to debate in support or opposition of legislation.  In the Sahel region in Africa, climate change’s worst effects are present and destructive.

The Sahel region in Africa is a belt of land beneath the Sahara desert in North Africa. It stretches across the continent from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, encompassing Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. It is a semi-arid region, littered with grasslands and scarce water supplies as it transitions from the Sahara desert.  The populations in the region battle for the existence with food security concerns due to overgrazing and irregular irrigation that have been exacerbated due to climate change.

“Farmers can adapt to trends. They cannot adapt to extreme weather “– Petra Tschakert, Penn State University Climate-Change Expert.

The region has been the recipient of aid from the western world. In 2005, when famine hit the region, USAID coordinated efforts to provide $134 million to fight hunger. Since then millions of dollars have poured in from government and non-government organizations. The European Union has bought nearly $100 million in food vouchers for 2010. The United Nations food program has asked for over $300 million for emergency funds to meet its food and development goals. Money is not the problem. 

While the perception of the region is one of extreme dryness, flooding has become a concern. In northern Nigeria and in Niger thousands were displaced when unexpected rains burst a dam. The region is battling desertification.  Insurance programs for crop production, weather occurrences (too much or too little rainfall) are starting to gain traction as a safety net for a failed plantin season.  The programs provide some lead way for when weather does not cooperate with farming. However, the region needs to become sustainable to support its rapid population increases.  The population has doubled every 20 years and food production increases over time have not kept up.

All aid will be wasted if there is no regularity to weather patterns in the Sahel for people to practice sustainable agriculture and food production. Increases in conflict will continue has populations become desperate. While there are many factors for the civil violence in Sudan, food shortages and poverty played a part in southern Sudan, including Darfur, fighting for independence. Ethiopia and Eritrea have fought wars with their populations both trying to hold onto as much arable land as possible (also Ethiopia wanted access to the Red Sea).  Senegal is a less than a decade removed from a brutish civil war. Many of the Sahel countries, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger, rank at the bottom of all global developmental indexes. 

The world is watching. Climate change and its after effects are no longer isolated to the extreme environs of the artic or the desert. The flooding in Pakistan, the intensity of hurricanes in Atlantic and the extreme heat conditions of the Russian summer are warnings of what the future holds if global warming is not reduced. The Sahel region can either experience famine and collapse or regenerate through a variety of environmental and political solutions. It remains to be seen whether the Sahel is a precursor for the worst of times or salvation and rebirth.

As mentioned above, the rich and developing countries (the United States, European Union, Japan, China, India, and Brazil) will not be able to throw some money at climate change and minimize its damage. They need to follow through with and enforce global environmental standards across all political borders.  In the long term, the conditions in the Sahel could be everywhere.

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