Continuing on Saadia’s discussion of climate change, I want to point out one part of the world where the effects of climate change are being felt now. Unfortunately, it just may be the one region of the world that can least afford another problem.
The Sahel is the region in Africa where the Sahara desert meets sub-Saharan tropical Africa. This semi-arid belt runs east to west across the continent and includes the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) publishes the Human Development Report, in which it ranks the countries of the world from 1 to 179 according to their level of development. The Sahelian countries listed above rank 153, 140, 168, 173, 174, 154, 170, 146, and 164 respectively. In other words, this is a tough place to be born.
I recently spent almost six months in Chad, and I saw first-hand just how fragile life can be in this region. The vast majority of people are desperately poor, governments are corrupt, conflict abounds, the heat is merciless, and disease is rampant. I don’t mean to perpetuate stereotypes about Africa as a hopeless land of suffering, but the fact is, in these countries life is very, very hard.
Now the people of the Sahel have one more thing to worry about – climate change. The UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Conflict, Jan Egeland, recently traveled through the Sahel to see and report on the effects of climate change in the region. What he found was dried lakes, unemployed fishermen, droughts, flooding, conflict, and food insecurity.
Year by year, little by little, the fertile areas of the Sahel dry up and become sand. This means that the mostly nomadic people who lived in those areas are pushed south in search of water and land on which to graze their cattle. But those lands are already occupied by agricultural people who are just managing to survive and who do not want to see new competitors for extremely scarce resources. Add into the mix the historical animosities throughout the region between the northern populations, who are typically more “arabized” pastoralists and the southerners who more resemble sub-Saharan African populations and result is not hard to predict. In a region already plagued with endemic conflict, climate change makes the prospects of peace even more dim.
For more information, an excellent New York Times Magazine article last year detailed the complications of keeping peace between northern and southern Sudan, and how increased desertification add fuel to the fire. Also, this World Bank film details the effects of climate change in Niger.
All is not completely hopeless, however. In addition to the many problems, Egeland did point out a number of efforts to find solutions to the problem of climate change in the Sahel. He detailed projects to dig trenches to reduce flood damage and to dig canals to bring water to dry villages. Reforestation projects can help slow down the encroachment of the desert into arable land. There is even a proposal to divert water from plentiful rivers in the Congo to feed the rivers of the Sahel.
He also argued that significant funds must be made available by the developed countries (after all, we are the ones causing climate change) to address not only climate change mitigation, but also to support adaptation of affected populations. We will see what decisions are taken at the climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.