Case study: the impact of drought in a developing country - the Sahel

The Sahel region is located directly south of the Sahara desert and stretches from the east to the west of Africa.

The Sahel desert is located in northern Africa.

The Sahel is semi-arid, receiving between 250 and 450 mm of rainfall in an average year, which only falls in one or two months. This region provides Africa with food and cash crops such as millet and cotton.

The Sahel has experienced a series of droughts going back to at least the 17th century. The frequency of droughts increased from the end of the 19th century. Severe droughts occurred in the 1910s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The most recent drought was in 2012.

The recent droughts are down to physical and human factors:

  • Overgrazing and deforestation on marginal land can lead to desertification. With less vegetation there is less transpiration and evaporation from the soil, causing less rainfall.
  • Changes in surrounding ocean temperature - the temperatures of the south Atlantic and Indian Oceans increased, with a smaller temperature gap between land and ocean, and monsoon rains were reduced.
  • Some scientists believe climate change has reduced rainfall or made it less predictable.

Social and economic impacts

  • Subsistence farmers' crops fail and livestock dies. This can lead to famine and hunger.
  • Commercial farms growing cash crops such as cotton lose income and may cause unemployment.
  • With less food being grown and an increase in demand, food prices increase.
  • Increased soil erosion makes the land less fertile, creating a long-term issue for the farming community.
  • Clean water is not available for people to drink, increasing the use of contaminated water and diseases such as cholera.
  • People (usually women and children) travel further to find water, which means children miss school. In addition, the carrying of heavy loads can lead to back problems.

Environmental impacts

Seasonal rivers and water holes dry up, so organisms which live in them or rely on them for water may die.

Vegetation dies causing animals which depend on it for food or shelter to perish or migrate.

Increased soil erosion. Eroded material is washed into rivers or water holes resulting in contamination.

A photo of the semi-arid landscape of the Sahel
The semi-arid landscape of the Sahel

Attempted solutions

  • Encouraging farmers to grow drought-resistant crops.
  • Improving knowledge and understanding of droughts across the region by launching the Africa Climate Exchange which turns scientific advances into practical solutions.
  • Use of drip irrigation systems to reduce water usage.
  • Placing lines of stones and rocks across the land to slow overland water flow and encourage the deposition of sediments rich in soil nutrients. This is a cost-effective option.
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