This article was originally drafted by Chris Kwaja and the Centre for Democracy and Development for the newsletter “West Africa Insight” as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Searchlight Process. For more Searchlight content on futurechallenges.org, please click here.
Since early 2000, the Sahel region of West Africa has witnessed deteriorating political, social and economic conditions with huge humanitarian consequences. In fact, desertification has become one of the most endemic crises of high proportion that is currently affecting an estimated 100 to 200 million people globally, which threatens their lives and livelihood (Adeel, et.al, 2006). The region is confronted with the reality posed by desertification, and floods have become the most common disasters in countries such as Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo in the last six years (Ferris & Stark, 2012).
The Sahel region, which is made up countries such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, is an environmental zone that stretches from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic coastlines of Senegal and Mauritania. Presently, more than 18 million people are at risk of hunger and starvation in the region, largely due to drought caused by poor rainfall, too little food, high grain prices, environmental damage and large number of internal refugees (World Bank, 2012). Concerns over inadequate lands and water sources for production in the region have dominated discourse on the future of the region.
The African Sahel is particularly vulnerable to adverse effects from climate change (By Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR via flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
In 2007, the Great Green Wall initiative (GGWI) was adopted by the AfriUnion as a strategic step towards addressing the challenges posed by desertification in the continent. Under the initiative, an approximate 800 km long and 15km wide belt of trees will be planted, cultivated or regenerated across the entire length of the Sahel, as a way of safeguarding the area against southward encroachment of the Sahara. The GGWI has attracted huge international attention and applause to the extent that the sum of $115 million in grants and investments were pledged for intervention in the Sahel region (Walker, 2013).
Reinforcing the capacity of countries within the Sahel region of West Africa in addressing desertification should be an integrated one that focuses on mitigation and preparedness, emergency response and recovery. As rightly observed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations:
The overall priority areas in the region include protecting the livelihood of the most vulnerable households; strengthening the resilience of pastoralists, agro pastoralists and farmers; support the management and conservation of natural resources such as water, trees and soil; provide integrated emergency nutrition assistance to most vulnerable families, especially women; reinforce disaster risk reduction and management at local, national and regional levels; supporting coordination and strengthening food security information management and early warning systems.
Between 2007 and mid 2009, displacements arising from flood and the threats of desertification have affected thousands of people across the Sahel region. Overall, since 2010, stretching from Mauritania to Chad, drought has affected an estimated 10,000,000 people (Ferris & Stark, 2012:11-12; Palus, 2013).
Desertification threatens the livelihoods of many that live in the Sahel region, like these men in Sudan (By SOS Sahel UK via flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
While there are several national frameworks or strategies put in place, when it comes to issues of violence and desertification, they lack effective disaster preparedness capabilities.
As a forward looking strategy, the GGWI, which affirms security for the people rather than states, ought to focus more on a bottom-up as against top-bottom approach to combating desertification in the region. The value added in this has to do with the fact that it is easy for the initiative to get the buy-in of the people in terms of implementation, sustainability and impact. This is central to the whole question of addressing some of the deficits associated with planning and inadequate resources for sustainability.
At the regional level, ECOWAS’s policy direction towards a strategic food reserve in responding to food insecurity in the region is critical, in terms of complementing efforts by member states at national levels. As both a medium and long term measure, this is meant to build resilience and serve as a life-line for vulnerable households or communities.
In the future, since displacements will not only be attributed or tied to conflicts and violence in the region, the normative frameworks on internal displacements in the region should also capture the realities posed by desertification. As it is at the moment, the notion of environmental migrations, displacements and refugees is gaining prominence as per discussions on the linkage between desertification and migration.
As part of an emergency plan for the Sahel region, coordinated donor response to desertification, drought, and famine is an imperative. A harmonized multi-donor strategic action plan on combating desertification that links local, national and regional frameworks should be one that is anchored on building capacity as well as community action on resilience. This should be implemented, rather than viewed as stand-alone among development partners, supra-national entities and the developed economies.
Adeel, Z. et.al., (2006) Overcoming One of the Greatest Environmental Challenges of Our Times: Re-thinking Policies to Cope with Desertification, available at http//:www.inweh.unu.edu/dry lands/docs/Publications/IYDD_Policy_Brief-June_2007.pdf
Ferris, E & Stark, C (2012) Internal Displacement in West Africa: A Snapshot, Project on Internal Displacement, Brookings- LSE, available at http//:www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/01/ecowas-ferris-stark.pdf
Palus, N (2013) West Africa: After the Drought, Floods and Harvest Worries, available at http//:www.irinnews.org/…/WEST-AFRICA-After-the-drought-floods-and-harvest-worries.html
Walker, T (2013) Africa: Imagining the Great Green Wall of Africa, Institute for Security Studies, available at http//:www.allafrica.com/stories/2012202100963.html
World Bank (2012) Drought Worsens in the Sahel Region of Africa- Millions of People at Risk, available at www.go.worldbank.org/E1KJ5SJ130
 FAO. http//:www.fao.org/crisis/sahel/the-sahel-crisis/2012/crisis-in-the-sahel-region