The Sahel region; assessing progress twenty-five years after the great drought
Simon Batterbury


A shorter version is in The Geographical (London) May 1998.
Before issues of global warming, ozone depletion or acid rain became important objects of scientific study and international concern, the Sahel region came to represent what Claude Raynaut called "the quintessence of a major environmental emergency" following major episodes of drought and food shortages in the 1970s. The so-called environmental emergency has two components; periods of drought, and localized environmental degradation that together have been sufficiently grave severely to curtail agricultural production and livestock numbers. The rich culture and history of this African region has, sadly, become linked in public consciousness to stories of food insecurity and social vulnerability.

The Sahel forms the southern edge of the Saharan desert, passing at least 4,500km from Senegal through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, and blends seamlessly into the slightly less arid Sudano-Sahel belt to its southern edge. The 50 million people of the Sahel pursue diverse livelihood strategies including agriculture, livestock herding, fishing, short and long-distance trading, and a variety of urban occupations. Farming in this region is almost entirely reliant on three months of summer rainfall, except along the banks of the major rivers, lakes, and other seasonal water courses. Cities were one the seats of empires, the crossing-points for trade, and sites of learning. Timbuktou, situated on the banks of the Niger, was the capital of the Songhai empire in the 1500s and the site of the fabled Islamic university of Sankoré, and it was not captured for the French until 1894. The colonisation of the Sahel was largely carried out by the French army, who were closely followed by adventurous traders and missionaries like France's "White Monks", the Pères Blancs under the infamous Cardinal Lavigerie. Together with a cadre of bureaucrats, they helped to enlarge the early native settlements and fortified posts into the administrative, cultural and economic centres we know today; Dakar, Bamako, Ouagadougou, Bobo Dioulassou, Niamey and Kano (Nigeria's northern metropolis, taken by the British). These and other settlements now have good road connections, and there are examples of market gardening and intensive agricultural production that feed the growing urban populations. Transport systems are, however, patchy; there are only three main railway lines, and many smaller towns have been linked to the cities by metalled roads only since the 1980s. The Niger and Senegal rivers have provided transport arteries for centuries.

Researchers studying the Sahel today focus on the regions' continued economic fragility, its halting steps towards democratic political regimes, and its continued food security problems. Despite complex economic migration patterns and urban expansion in the 20th century, the vast majority of the region's rural dwellers are dependent on some form of rain-fed agriculture or animal production. Some suggest that there are no "normal" rainfall levels in this region; just fluctuating supplies and changing human demand for water. Three major droughts have occurred this century, in 1910-1916, 1941-1945, and a long period of below average rainfall (termed 'desiccation') that began in the late-1960s and continued, with some interruptions, into the the 1980s. Absolute minimum rainfall level were recorded at many stations in 1983 and 1984. The period of poor rainfall in the 1970s struck particularly hard for many Sahelian farmers and pastoralists, when there were an estimated 100,000 drought-related deaths.

The hazardous conditions of the droughts of the 1970s, and those that followed, have had cumulative impacts, but these impacts form part of complex patterns of social and economic change, and it is almost impossible to separate the effects of the natural hazard (drought) from other factors that made individuals vulnerable. Vulnerability is an everyday situation for some people, but a rare occurrence for others. It is important here to differentiate between meteorological drought - below-average moisture supply - and the effects of changing human land uses and practices. Low rainfall can be coped with, if farmers have a diverse livelihood systems, or sufficient assets. Famine situations have resulted in dryland West Africa where drought conditions have surprised populations that were unprepared for them (as in the 1970s, when fifteen years of good rainfall had encouraged many to over-invest in agriculture); and where the possible range of adjustments have been constrained by warfare, social status, or corruption and mismanagement. In some areas people starved without drought conditions, because of locust invasions, epidemics, or the seizure of their harvests by warlords or even colonial administrators.

Sahelian droughts and their effects have been studied intensively since the 1970s, as part of the international response to "environmental emergency". It is only in the last ten years, however, that the long-term impacts of the famines of the 1970s have become evident. Those events provoked a re-thinking of the links between population growth, drought, and socio-political change, and also helped to re-focus development policy away from expensive and unsuccessful "interventions" towards more considerate schemes targeted at boosting local capacities. Since the 1970s the Sahelian nations have also witnessed an abrupt economic transformation involving increases in migration, international trade, and links to the international development aid system.

Despite slow starts, since the early 1970s the international community has acquired an increasing capability to prevent the onset of drought-induced food shortages. Early warning systems are one aspect of this. These provide the data necessary to predict or assess potential crop loss and animal shortfalls, based partly on remotely-sensed data of vegetation cover and rainfall patterns and partly on food market surveys. The FEWS (Famine Early Warning System) developed by the American aid programme (USAID) for example, alerts policymakers and governments to rapid price hikes for the staple foods at local markets, and unusual land cover changes, that may signal an impending food shortage. But responding to these warnings has been more difficult, and the record of food distribution in famine situations by donors and governments has been chequered. While the provision of adequate grain reserves in affected areas has been helped with the establishment of national cereals boards in most Sahelian nations, and eased by road construction into the remoter rural areas, national financial resources are frequently inadequate to maintain food reserves. Rural dwellers still have to pay for government grain except in times of extreme famine, and not all households may be able to pay even a subsidised price. In the 1990s, private traders have taken over much of the burden of grain provision and prices now float according to supply and demand, with less government intervention. In the canton of Hamdallaye, a market centre that serves a hinterland of Zarma villages in south west Niger, market prices fluctuate considerably on a monthly basis, and have actually risen at well above inflation rates since the start of the 1980s when the government scaled down its grain programme. Fred Pearce of the New Scientist summarises the situation thus: "Across the Sahel, most countries now have sufficient grain most years. It doesn't always get to the poorest inhabitants any more than Porches "trickle down" to the poor. But it is there. Often, with no thanks to governments".

Another group of proposed adjustments were focused on working with the human and drought-induced stress on natural ecosystems, by supporting only modest increases in the production of foodstuffs and livestock numbers but, at the same time, improving the resilience of these systems to "bad years" of drought or other hazards. Resilience may be boosted by encouraging soil and water conservation, agro-forestry, and stocks of fodder for livestock. Locally-based efforts to nurture and protect the resource base are a feature of many development initiatives in the Sahel today, and a flourishing of local interest these schemes owes much to the international concern first raised in the 1970s. The premise was that, if rainfall was unreliable, then what fell should be captured and used more effectively. There are now thousands of farmer cooperatives, small-scale NGO projects, internationally funded development projects and programmes involved in environmental rehabilitation, soil and water conservation, and other forms of support to rural people. Classic cases are found on the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso, occupied by the Mossi people. The Plateau, which straddles the Sahel and Sudano-Sahel zones, is a "laboratory" for some of the most innovative techniques in soil and water conservation and agroforestry in dryland Africa. Contour stone lines (diguettes) built by farmers and consisting of lines of stones and rocks placed across the land contour, are cheap and popular erosion control methods and are much publicized by development organisations like OXFAM and GTZ (German development aid). These are built to slow the erosive overland flow from summer rains and to capture water where it is needed by the growing crops, as well as to increase the deposition of sediments rich in soil nutrients, also of benefit to crops and trees. These systems were developed by European volunteers and farmers experimenting together, and they are transforming the landscape around hundreds of villages. Stone lines and other conservation works are now highly visible features of the contemporary rural landscape. They are not miracle cures, however, and are of most assistance to farmers who own their own land. Much more applied research and collaboration with farmers is required on these techniques.

A third group of proposed adjustments were focused on improved production technologies, such as higher-yielding drought-resistant crops, irrigation, or improved ranching and grazing schemes. The record here is less good, and as the FEWS project notes, "hopes for a Green Reolution in the Sahel have faded". Plant breeding and technological development by organizations like ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, with a laboratory outside Niamey in Niger) has created improved varieties of millet and sorghum, the two staple foodgrains. These generally require more moisture than local varieties, and more fertilizer and pesticides. Without these inputs - so difficult to afford in the present economic climate - yield increase rarely seem to compensate for increased costs to farmers. The "development and transfer of technology to the farmer" - part of ICRISAT's mandate, and the focus of several American-funded projects in the 1970s and 1980s - seems to have faltered. The largest effort to overcome national food defecits was the Authorité des Aménagements des Vallées des Voltas (AVV) scheme in southern Burkina Faso, which resettled thousands of farmers from the densely settled northern areas of Burkina Faso in the fertile river valleys in the south and west of the country. These sparsely populated lands were opened up for settlement by a massive river-blindness eradication program in the 1970s. Settlers were allocated plots, received start-up assistance, and were asked to adopt a package of improved seed varieties and intensive cultivation techniques. After 25 years, there is little evidence of sustainable intensification of agriculture in the AVV, although the scheme has certainly provided new land and new options for some farmers.

A fourth group of changes set in motion by the environmental emergencies of the 1970s involve a re-structuring of the Sahel's place in Africa and the world. The drought, when it received popular attention, helped initiate some longer-term externally-aided projects that might not otherwise have been supported. Readers may recall seeing BBC television documentaries about a team of British celebrities playing soccer against local teams in Burkina Faso in 1997, in order to raise money for the charity, Comic Relief. But the changes go much deeper. Over the last twenty-five years, national governments have attempted to 'catch up' with their more affluent and progressive neighbors through investment in basic industries, power supply, agricultural exports, mining, transportation networks and healthcare - funded in large part by foreign aid. Structural Adjustment programmes for macro-economic recovery, that impose special conditions on the recipient countries, have (as elsewhere in Africa) had mixed results. An over-inflated and inefficient public administration has been trimmed back under these programmes, but entrepreneurship and 'market forces' have not, and perhaps will not, improve qulity of life and economic conditions for the majority of Sahelian peoples. For example in Niger, currently the Sahel's poorest nation, a severe economic crisis and political instability has been compounded by the withdrawal by most aid donors in the mid 1990s. The lack of financial resources has mean rural schooling, healthcare, and agricultural extension services (once funded by government export of uranium reserves, when prices for that product were higher) have virtually ground to a halt. Burkina Faso, by contrast, has a healthier economy and it is experiencing an 'aid boom'. It exports green beans to Paris, and dried tomatoes and mangos to British health food outlets. But questions are being raised about its focus on improving its export potential and economic growth, rather than on supporting its skilled and innovative subsistence farmers and pastoralists.

Lastly, is it important to note that rural populations have responded to all these fast-changing conditions through increasing mobility. Rural population in the Sahel could easily double in the next thirty years. Some see this as a major problem, given the likely limit to home-grown food supplies. Others, like Mike Mortimore - a British geographer who has studied farming systems in Northern Nigeria for thirty years - say that much of the region is "underpopulated, not overpopulated", and more people are needed for soil and water conservation and agricultural labour - "more hands to work and more brains to think", says Fred Pearce. Migration to new regions, or temporary movements to find paid work, have allowed Sahelian populations to "breathe" where that are faced with drought, land pressures, and poor soil quality, according to the Club du Sahel. It is common to find the majority of young men from Sahelian villages "en exode" (on economic migration, mainly to the cities and coastal areas) in the dry season when farming activities are minimal. Some ethnic groups, like the Tuareg and the Peul, are traditionally mobile in rural space. But it is common to see farmers, from groups including the Mossi and Hausa, moving to new areas of low population density including eastern or south-west Burkina Faso, as land becomes scarce back home. The Club du Sahel also predict a growing urban population for the region; across all of West Africa, thirty cities will achieve populations of a million people or more by 2020. There are only six at the present time. The region is unlikely to develop a strong indigenous manufacturing sector, thus splitting urban employment between the thousands of remaining government employees (the functionnaires) and a thriving informal sector.

Into the future
The changes currently under way in the Sahel region remind us that, for all the influence of political and economic restructuring on everyday lives, the natural environment still plays a major part in determining who prospers, who suffers, who migrates, and who starves. The consellation of forces that link the Sahel's rural people to global climatic changes, financial flows, and circuits of political and military power, cannot be adequately understood if we see the region as suffering a continuing "environmental emergency". Persistent drought is but one of a set of overwhelming problems affecting the Sahel, which has some of the poorest nations in the world. In most countries there is little internal capacity to cope even with the most pressing impacts of the drought, let alone the more subtle ones. Boosting this capacity is an important element of the work of organisations like the International Institute for Environment and Development's Drylands Programme, the Club du Sahel, Denmark's DANIDA, and the Institut du Sahel in Mali.

Geographers are well placed to undertand the nature of these changes, and to help shape them. To focus on just three areas in which a radical, and yet applied geographical input is needed:

we can conduct practical research to permit local people to take over the management of running of their own development initiatives, building upon their own skills, indigenous knowledge, and resources.

we can assess long-term trends, using combinations of long-range monitoring and detailed local investigations. Detailed local studies have already identified the evolution of the food crises of the 1970s. Now, as the world has changed, much of our efforts could be taken up with indicating the exit points from those same crises.

we should also look to work with those in positions of influence and power to improve their interventions and to help ensure positive benefits to rural people and their livelihood systems. It is important that the skills and aspirations of rural dwellers, and the increasing urban population, are translated into a language understood by governments and development projects. Development rarely succeeds where it is imposed or where it ignores complex social and ecological realities. The last thing the people of the Sahel need is poorly thought-out development.

Grateful thanks to Robert W. Kates and Andrew Warren for comments. The article draws on material from the Club du Sahel, and the Famine Early Warning Systems Project.
Dr Simon Batterbury lectures in human geography at Brunel University, London, and at the University of Colorado, USA. He works in Burkina Faso and Niger on case studies of soil and water conservation programmes and long-term adjustments to social and environmental change.

On Wednesday May 13th 1998 in London, the RGS-IBG hosted an open conference for students, policymakers, and researchers to assess the progress of research and policy in the Sahel region since the droughts of the 1970s, leading to a re-assessment of future priorities. The international panel of speakers included Camila Toulmin, Gaoussou Traoré, Mike Hulme, Claude Raynaut, Rob Groot, Mike Mortimore, Brigitte Thèbaud and Jean-Marie Cour. See the conference website at