Climate Change Impacts on Agriculture and Food Security in the Sahel

Debborah Donnelly, MA 12/4/2011


Climate Change Impacts on Agriculture and Food Security in the Sahel
The Sahel is a biogeographic zone that crosses the Northern part of Africa between the Sahara Desert and the more tropical savanna to the south. Agriculture for the purposes of this paper shall include wild vegetation harvesting, traditional agriculture including food and fodder crops, and the impact on grazing and farmed livestock. Because it is a transition zone from an exceedingly arid ecological area, the Sahel has traditionally been severely impacted by prior climatic extremes. This paper will compare and contrast the current research which provides different future projections on rainfall patterns and what the subsequent challenges or benefits this will have on food security in the Sahel. It is the intention of this project to articulate not only how climate has impacted the region in the historical past through specific examples, and the subsequent adaptations of crop choice and technology, but also to analyze current research on the potential impacts associated with climate change. _____ Theories of Desertification The Sahel is a fragile but important ecological zone that due to its nature on the edge of the Sahara Desert is particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change. There have been differing theories over the cause of major recent droughts in the Sahel which is the result of either human intervention (for example overgrazing), or as a consequence of increasing ocean temperatures.1 The NASA atmospheric modelling program (GCM) has been used to determine the effects of sea surface temperatures from 1930 to 2000 and the model has “reproduced much of the variability in the observed Sahel rainfall” patterns.2 Alternatively Zeng points out that a recent study of “population dynamics and land use history...over the last 35 to 40 years is not nearly enough to explain the observed drought,”3 which gives stronger credence to the theory of ocean temperature impacts on the region.

1 2

Fields, A536 – quoting Isaac Held of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Zeng, 999 3 Ibid

2 Africa’s vulnerability Because about 70% of African workers are employed in agriculture4 – many at the subsistence level, variations in climate can have overwhelming impacts on the livelihoods of the majority of the population. Not surprisingly, “rainfall is the biggest variable for crop and animal production”5 in Africa. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "the historical climate record for Africa shows warming of approximately 0.7ºC over most of the continent during the twentieth century; a decrease in rainfall over large portions of the Sahel . . . and an increase in rainfall in east central Africa."6 This vulnerability is compounded as the poverty levels are such that they are also more unlikely to be able to mitigate the effects of climate change. The poorest people tend to inhabit “ecologically fragile and vulnerable areas and in sub-Saharan Africa this figure is 50%.”7 Africa generates significantly less greenhouse gas than more developed nations, and “the least developed countries, such as Mali, generate less than a tenth of a metric ton (of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide) per person each year.”8 Africa, for instance, is responsible for less than 7% of global emissions and only 4% of CO2 emissions.9

History of Drought in the Sahel Drought is not uncommon in the Sahel, with earlier documented occurrences for the years 1639-1643, 1738-1756, 1913 and 1968-1984.10 About 300,000 people died in a prolonged drought in the Sahel during the 1970s of which Mali in particular had 100,000 people die and some 750,000 were completely reliant on food aid for survival.11
4 5

Fields, A536 Ibid 6 Fields, A536 – as reported in Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability 7 Scott, 11 – quoting Leach and Mearns (1991), and a 1997 UNDP study
8 9

Fields, A535 – as opposed to the 16 tons per person/year in the United States Scott, 18 10 Jacks, 438-439

3 More recently, from February to August 2010, a record-breaking heat wave caused “crops in Niger to fail to mature and some 350,000 faced starvation, and millions were at risk of famine.”12

Consequences Decreased agricultural productivity not only has a significant impact on poverty, but it is estimated that “crop yields in Africa could be halved within 40 years if degradation of cultivated land continues at present rates.”13 In turn the resulting dry air has brought an increase in dust storms with dune creep and health impacts. The loss of habitat and water, and increasing population in turn forces land use changes, with people occupying fringe areas and “forcing the movement of large herds which cause intergroup conflicts.”14 Some wild sources of food are becoming harder to find and vector borne diseases have increased their range, with a result of increased adult mortality.15 “Not only are the spillover effects environmental, in terms of dust storms and soil erosion and so forth, but there is also massive spillover of people moving out of [more stressed areas] into better resourced areas.”16 It is the compounding of effects that are the most detrimental. Coping strategies have relied on movement to alternate resources and relying on international aid.

Adaptation The drought in the Sahel that occurred in the late 1960s and 70s was a “major impetus in the establishment of the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification and Drought.”17
11 12

Hellmuth et al, 3 Foy – Chad and Niger both broke records for highest temperatures ever recorded on June 22, 2010 13 Scott, 10 14 Fields, A536

Fields, A537; The environmental components of disease are highest in less developed countries. In sub-Saharan Africa environmental factors are the cause of 27% of the total burden of disease. Scott, 13

Ibid, quoting Bob Scholes, an ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa

4 More research and foreign aid came in to deal with the problem and look for contributing factors and possible solutions. A program funded primarily through external agencies was developed in 1982, in response to the previous decade of drought that plagued the Sahel, Mali began supplying local farmers with weather and climate information through the Direction Nationale de la Météorologie (DNM). The success of the utilization of this meteorological information is based on the evidence that “farmers affiliated with the project consistently report higher yields, and correspondingly higher incomes”18 than farmers who did not have access to the information. Since 1982, nearly 2,500 farmers have benefited from the program. Following the intense drought of 1984/85 the people most affected in Mali “were the Tamasheq nomads, who lost about 80% of their herds.”19 Considering they are reported to obtain about 30% of their daily dietary intake from milk, the Tamasheqs were severely affected by the loss of livestock. Adaptation by some resulted in adopting a sedentary lifestyle and the replacement of milk in the diet with cereals – this had a negative impact not only on nutrition and disease, but also on land-use patterns that adversely affected the environment. “It would be better from the nutritional, as well as the ecological point of view, to help them to build up their herds again.”20

Conclusion Despite recent strides in reducing Mali’s food deficit, the absolute number of Malians who are severely undernourished has increased along with the country’s growing population.21 New solutions are being implemented by various agencies throughout the region to tackle the problem, including dredging river beds and sharing meteorological information to help improve crop yields. While local knowledge and transhumance patterns have been well adapted to deal
17 18

Zeng, 999 Hellmuth, et al, 2 and Meadu, 1 19 Jacks, 444 20 Ibid 21 EC-FAO Food Security Information for Decision-Making. “Price Monitoring and Analysis Country Brief: Mali.” September–December 2010.

5 with previous climate-related issues, the real test will be in the people of the Sahel being able to cope with all the compounding effects – famine, health, loss of species, civil strife...
“Four years ago only 1 square kilometre of land around the lake (Faguibine) was being farmed. But this year’s harvest is something else. Already 200 square kms have been brought back to life. Proof that Africa’s damaged natural infrastructure is not beyond repair. But it’s going to be a long battle, digging trenches by hand to try and halt the advance of a 22 sand-dune.”


Harding - video

Fields, S. (2005) Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden is Greater. Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 8 (Aug. 2005), pp. A534-A537. Brogan & Partners. Foy, H. (2010) Millions face starvation in West Africa, warn aid agencies. The Guardian, London. June 21, 2010 Harding, A. (2009) Years of drought have been reversed in Mali. BBC News – video December 11, 2009 Hellmuth, M., Diarra, D.Z., Vaughan, C. and Cousin, R. (2011) Increasing Food Security with Agrometeorogical Information: Mali’s National Meteorological Service Helps Farmers Manage Climate Risk. World Resources Report, Washington, DC. Available online at Jacks, B. (1994) Living Conditions and Nutrition of Some Tamasheq Groups in Mali under the Influence of Drought. Ambio. Vol. 23, No. 7 (Nov. 1994), pp. 438-445. Springer for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Meadu, V. (2011) Climate information: Malian farmers’ most valuable tool? Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security December 2, 2011 Scott, L. (2006) Chronic Poverty and the Environment: A Vulnerability Perspective. Chronic Poverty Research Centre Paper 62. Overseas Development Institute, London. Zeng, N. (2003) Drought in the Sahel. Science. New Series, Vol. 302, No. 5647 (Nov. 7, 2003), pp. 999-1000. American Association for the Advancement of Science

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