The Sahel: One region, many crises

the Sahel
From Africa Renewal: 
page 22
Representatives from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), United Nations agencies and partners meet with a village chief in Sinegodar, Niger. Photo: OCHA/Nicole Lawrence

Africa’s Sahel region faces many complex and interconnected challenges. Here are some of the major ones, and how the United Nations is assisting the region in finding solutions.

The food crisis

When the Sahel is in the news, it is often because millions of people are at risk of going hungry. A humanitarian crisis usually unfolds on the back of a food crisis. In 2012, the lives of up to 18 million people were put at risk following a major food crisis in the region. This year, more than 11 million are facing the same plight, while 1.4 million children are threatened with severe malnutrition. Even in normal years, millions are in a permanent state of food insecurity. Over the past five decades, persistent droughts have contributed to famine episodes. There is now a need to break the cycle of recurrent food crises in the region, many humanitarian actors say.

How is the UN assisting?

Throughout this year’s lean season—the period between harvests from May to September—the World Food Programme (WFP) gave food to between 5 and 6 million people each month through its nutrition and food security programme. In 2012 the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) helped more than 5.2 million people through support to off-season food and crop production, soil and water conservation and rehabilitation projects, and desert locust control and monitoring. With its partners, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is also mobilizing resources and assisting communities in need.

The environmental crisis

Historically the Sahel has been characterized by strong climatic variations and irregular rainfalls, which pose two of the biggest obstacles to food security and poverty reduction in the region, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Things have gotten worse in recent decades, experts say. Between 1970 and 1993, the region recorded 20 years of severe drought. The frequency and severity of droughts and floods has increased over this period. FAO reports that over 80% of the region’s land is degraded. By 2050, writes Malcolm Potts of the University of California–Berkeley, with greenhouse gas emissions rising, temperatures will be warmer by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius and extreme weather events will have become more common. 

Various factors account for the Sahel’s environmental crisis. “Over the last half century,” UNEP notes, “the combined effects of population growth, land degradation (deforestation, continuous cropping and overgrazing), reduced and erratic rainfall, lack of coherent environmental policies and misplaced development priorities, have contributed to transform a large proportion of the Sahel into barren land, resulting in the deterioration of the soil and water resources.”

How is the UN assisting?

Among other recommendations, UN officials have urged regional cooperation to defuse tensions between countries of the region, and thereby reduce the risk of increased conflict and environmentally induced migration. Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, has pointed to “the urgent need for scaled-up investments in adaptation, moving forward on the Green Fund, and supportive measures such as reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation as well as realizing the climate finance of $100 billion a year by 2020.”

Focus on the Sahel trip

Insecurity and political instability

Political instability has plagued some of the Sahel’s countries for years. In Mali, the military coup of March 2012 brought an abrupt halt to 20 years of stable democracy. In its aftermath, terrorists who had occupied most of the northern region started heading south, intent on taking control of the whole country. In January 2013 a French-led and Chad-supported intervention stopped their advance. The conflict compounded the security and humanitarian crisis, in part by disrupting supply routes and causing food shortages. 

The crisis in neighbouring Darfur, Sudan, and the presence of an armed rebellion in the east did damage to Chad’s security that will last for many years. During Niger’s 50 years of independence, notes a report by the International Crisis Group, a think tank, the country has seen two armed rebellions, four coups, seven governments and periods of promising democratic change as well as reversals. 

In a region with porous borders, a political or security crisis in one country is often a serious threat to neighbours. These borders have benefited criminal networks and drug traffickers. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has estimated that major illicit flows linked to criminal activities in the Sahel amounted to $3.8 billion annually. 

How is the UN assisting?

UNODC recently helped broker an agreement among Mali, Morocco, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Algeria to address the problems caused by drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorism. In July the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of a peacekeeping mission to assist Mali on its way back to stability.

Fragile economies

Agriculture in the Sahel employs a majority of the region’s work force and contributes heavily to its gross domestic product (accounting for up to 45% in some countries of the region). It also plays a central role in food security. Yet it remains highly underdeveloped and is characterized by an almost total dependency on three to four months of rainfall per year, as well as by low use of external inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, the absence of mechanization and poor links to markets.

According to UNEP, the recurrent droughts of the 1970s and 1980s caused massive losses of agricultural production and livestock, loss of human lives to hunger, malnutrition and disease, massive displacements of people and shattered economies. Climate change could also have negative consequences on agricultural production and food security in the Sahel, says UNEP. All in all, the countries of the Sahel perform poorly on UNDP’s Human Development Index, a measurement of a country’s economic and social well-being. 

How is the UN assisting?

The World Bank believes irrigation could allow the Sahel’s agriculture to overcome the challenges posed by a hostile environment and produce more food for its people. “Although desert and aridity define the Sahel,” said World Bank Vice President for Africa Makhtar Diop in a recent op-ed piece, “its vast water resources remain untapped. In a region where farming is the predominant economic activity, sadly, only 20% of the Sahel’s irrigation potential has been developed. Worse still, one quarter of the area equipped with irrigation lies in a state of disrepair.”