Family planning new weapon against threatened Sahel

Rain – both its presence and more particularly its absence – controls most things in the Sahel. Despite the fact that the belt of land south of the Sahara has become greener, the outlook is gloomy when it comes to making resources stretch to a growing population in the face of climate change. Now researchers want investments in agriculture, education and family planning to help resources go around.

Marknad Mali

Traditional village in Mali. Photo: Scott S. Brown/Shutterstock

At the Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, there is a long tradition of land research in Sudan and Senegal, two countries in the Sahel region. Research stations in the region measure how much carbon is stored in the ground instead of in the atmosphere. Plants bind carbon and the more vegetation, the more moist the soil is and the higher the humus content. Since 2000 it has also been possible to measure the carbon in the ground and in the water cycle and to compare this data with satellite images and maps.

Jonas Ardo

Jonas Ardö. Photo: Gunnar Menander

“The Sahel is three million square kilometres in size. The climate also means that it can rain in one village but be dry in another a few kilometres away. With satellites, we can get week-by-week images of the region”, says physical geography researcher Jonas Ardö.

The Sahel lies just south of the Sahara Desert and extends from the Atlantic in the west to the Red Sea in the east. Rainfall in the region varies significantly, from 100–200 millimetres a year in the north of the region to 600–700 millimetres in the south. Moreover, the rain is unevenly spread over the year, with wet summers and dry winters. In some years there is no rain at all.

“Through evolution, nature has adapted to these conditions and it recovers rapidly after a period of drought”, says Jonas Ardö.

However, the distribution of resources is strongly influenced by the large differences in rainfall. The region is populated by nomads who can move from north to south in search of fertile grazing ground, but there are also many small farmers, of whom the majority live close to the breadline. Persistent drought has disastrous consequences for the farmers, and over the years the world has witnessed a number of severe famines, for example in Biafra, Sudan, and in the Horn of Africa.

“In these countries, the farmers have major difficulty securing food production”, says Jonas Ardö. He explains that poor infrastructure hampers or sometimes even prevents transport of food, and there are limited facilities for storing grain over long periods.

By all accounts, however, the Sahel has become greener over the past 20 years. This is particularly evident in a comparison with the record low rainfall of 1984–1985.

“We know that the region has become greener, but we do not have a clear-cut explanation for the geographical patterns detected. Nonetheless, rainfall does play a crucial role”, says Jonas Ardö.

The greenhouse effect may be one explanation. Another is the revegetation of areas abandoned by people in regions of conflict. However, it is clear that the increase in vegetation will not be the solution to future droughts.

“Higher average temperatures also increase evaporation, so they cancel out the benefits”, says Jonas Ardö.

The greatest source of concern for the researchers is not drought, because nature is able to adapt to that, but rather the rapid population growth in the region and the complete lack of increase in agricultural productivity.

“The more people who have to share the resources, the more difficult it is to make them go around”, says Jonas Ardö.

It is possible to simulate what the Sahel region will be like in 2030. The researchers calculate that the population will have increased substantially by then, but that productivity (measured as available biomass per person) will have fallen by 15 per cent. There is a risk of a humanitarian disaster. How can the limited resources be made to stretch?

Jonas Ardö and his research group recently became part of an interdisciplinary project entitled “Less is more and more for less” in collaboration with LUCSUS and researchers in the USA, Niger and Sudan. The group will investigate what solutions can be offered on the basis of research that has already been carried out.

This could include women’s education and family planning. If women have children later, they have fewer children and there is a greater likelihood that they will go to school.

In order to prevent a new humanitarian disaster, it is also important to consider new crops, new farming methods, secure water resources, supply and demand, and access to energy. A lot of biofuel is used in cooking. It could be possible to encourage the use of solar panels and alternatives to biofuel for this, thereby reducing pressure on the forests.

“It is not a simple problem that can be solved simply. However, democratisation, education and women’s rights are the key”, says Jonas Ardö.

Anna Johansson