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Desertification - Sahel case study

Desertification in the Sahel region is a pressing environmental issue with far-reaching consequences. In this article, we will explore the causes, effects, and potential solutions to combat desertification, using a case study from the Sahel region. By examining the unique challenges faced in this area, we can gain insights into the broader fight against desertification and the importance of sustainable land management practices.

The Sahel is a semi-arid zone stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa to the Red Sea in the East, through northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, the great bend of the Niger River in Mali, Burkina Faso, southern Niger, northeastern Nigeria, south-central Chad, and into Sudan (Brittanica).

It is a biogeographical transition between the arid Sahara Desert to the North and the more humid savanna systems on its Southern side.

Desertification - Sahel case study

Desertification in the Sahel has increased over the last number of years.  It has been increasingly impacted by desertification, especially during the second half of the twentieth century. The whole Sahel region in Africa has been affected by devastating droughts, bordering the Sahara Desert and the Savannas.

During this period, the Sahara desert area grew by roughly 10%, most of which in the Southward direction into the semi-arid steppes of the Sahel. 

Understanding desertification in the Sahel

The Sahel region, stretching across Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, is characterized by fragile ecosystems and vulnerable communities. The combination of climate change, overgrazing, deforestation, and improper agricultural practices has resulted in extensive land degradation and desertification. The consequences of desertification in the Sahel are severe, including food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, and displacement of communities.

in the region, for around 8 months of the year, the weather is dry. The rainy season only happens for a few short months and only produces around 4-8 inches of water. The population growth over the years has caused illegal farming to take place over the last few years and has resulted in major soil erosion and desertification to take place. 

Examining a specific case study in the Sahel region sheds light on the complexities and impacts of desertification. In a particular community, unsustainable farming methods and drought have led to soil erosion and degradation. The once-fertile land has turned into arid, unproductive soil, forcing farmers to abandon their livelihoods and seek alternative means of survival. This case study highlights the urgent need for intervention and sustainable land management practices in the region.

Addressing the challenges

To combat desertification effectively, a multi-faceted approach is necessary. First and foremost, raising awareness about the issue and its consequences is crucial. Governments, NGOs, and local communities must collaborate to implement sustainable land management practices. This involves promoting agroforestry, conservation farming, and reforestation initiatives to restore degraded land and improve soil health. Additionally, supporting alternative income-generating activities and providing access to water resources can help alleviate pressure on the land and reduce vulnerability to drought.

Read more: Preventing desertification: Top 5 success stories

The impact of humans on the Sahel

The impact of humans on the Sahel region is a critical factor contributing to its current challenges and environmental changes. Human activities, including armed violence, climate change, deforestation, and overgrazing, have had significant consequences for both the ecosystem and the local communities.

While the area of the Sahel region is already considered to be a dry place, the impact of the human population in the area has really affected how the area continues to evolve. Towns are popping up all over the place, and because of this, more land is being used than ever before. The ground that they are building their lives on quickly began to die and became extremely unhealthy for any type of growth.

This has made headlines everywhere and even caught the attention of the United Nations. In 1994, the United Nations declared that June 17th would be known as the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.. This was a result of the large-scale droughts and famines that had been taking place and were at their height between 1968 and 1974.

In conclusion, the impact of humans on the Sahel is a multifaceted issue. The region faces a humanitarian crisis alongside security concerns, with climate change and human activities playing significant roles. Desertification caused by climate change, deforestation, and overgrazing has resulted in land degradation, loss of vegetation, and increased vulnerability to droughts and food insecurity. Implementing sustainable land management strategies is essential to mitigate the impact and promote the resilience of the Sahel's ecosystems and communities.

Droughts, grazing, and recharging aquifers

The Sahel’s natural climate cycles make it vulnerable to droughts throughout the year. But, during the second half of the twentieth century, the region also experienced significant increases in human population and resulting in increases in the exploitation of the lands through (cattle) grazing, wood- and bush consumption for firewood, and crop growth where possible.

These anthropogenic processes accelerated during the 1960s when relatively high rainfall amounts were recorded in the region for short periods of time, and grazing and agricultural expansion were promoted by the governments of the Sahel countries, seeing a good opportunity to use the region’s ecosystem for maximizing economic returns.

This resulted in the removal of large parts of the natural vegetation, including shrubs, grasses, and trees, and replacing them with crops and grass types that were suitable for (short-term) grazing.

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The world effort for the Sahel:

Natural aquifers, which were previously able to replenish their groundwater stocks during the natural climate cycles, were no longer able to do so, and the regions closest to the Sahara desert were increasingly desertified.

Removing the natural vegetation removed plant roots that bound the soil together, with over-exploitation by grazing eating away much of the grass.

Agricultural activity disrupted the natural system, forcing significant parts of the Sahel region to become dry and barren. Before the particularly bad famine of 1984, desertification was solely put down to climatic causes.

As the Sahel dries, the Sahara advances: and it is estimated to advance with a rate of 60 kilometres the Sahel lost and the Sahara desert gained per year.  Human influence is an important factor in the Sahel’s desertification, but not all can be attributed to human behaviour, says Sumant Nigam, a climate scientist at the University of Maryland.

'There is an important anthropogenic influence there, but it is also being met with natural cycles of climate variability that add and subtract in different periods', Nigam said. 'Understanding both is important for both attribution and prediction.'

Ecologists have been meeting all over the world to discuss the desertification of the Sahel at length. While many possible solutions have been proposed, a few goals have been established and are being worked on. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has not become involved and is working to create a long-lasting impact on the Sahel Region. However, after the mid-1980s, human-caused contributions were identified and taken seriously by the United Nations and many non-governmental organizations. Severe and long-lasting droughts followed throughout the 1960s-1980s, and impacted the human settlements in the forms of famine and starvation, allowing the Sahara desert to continue to expand southward. As a result, a barren and waterless landscape has emerged, with the northernmost sections of the Sahel transformed into new sections of the Sahara Desert. Even though the levels of drought have decreased since the 1990s, other significant reductions in rainfall have been recorded in the region, including a severe drought in 2012. It is estimated that over 23 million people in the Sahel region are facing severe food insecurity in 2022, and the European Commission projects that the crisis will worsen further amidst rising social security struggles.

Now, the goal is to see change take place by 2063, a year that seems far away but is a start in the efforts to rebuild the Sahel Region. 

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