Displaced by the Desert: An expanding Sahara leaves Broken Families and Violence in its Wake

An aerial view of settlements in the middle of the desert in the
surrounding area of Timbuktu, North of Mali. Courtesy: UN
Photo/Marco Domino

By Issa Sikiti da Silva
BAMAKO, Mali/COTONOU, Benin , Oct 18 2019 (IPS)

Abdoulaye proudly displays an album showing photos of him and
his family during happier times when they all lived together in
their home in northern Mali. Today, these memories seem distant and

“We lived happily as a big family before the war and ate and
drank as much as we could by growing crops and raising
livestock,” he tells IPS.

“Then the war broke out and our lives changed forever, pushing
us southwards, finally settling in the region of Mopti. Then we
went back home in 2013 when the situation stabilised,” Abdoulaye

In 2012, various
groups of Tuareg rebels grouped together to form and administer a
new northern state called Azawad
. The civil strife that
resulted drove many from their homes, with communities often
fleeing with their livestock, only to compete for scarce natural
resources in vulnerable host communities, according to the United

  • In Mali, three-quarters of the population rely on agriculture
    for their food and income, and most are subsistence farmers,
    growing rainfed crops on small plots of land, according to the Food
    and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the U.N.

After the security situation began to improve in 2013, many
returned home to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

But soon it was the turn of the expanding Sahara Desert, drought
and land degradation that became the next driver of their

“As time went by, the land became useless and we found
ourselves having no more land to work on. Nothing would come out
that could feed us, and our livestock kept dying due the lack of
water and grass to eat, ” Abdoulaye recalls.

“Drought across the Sahel region, followed by conflict in
northern Mali, caused a major slump in the country’s agricultural
production, reducing household assets and leaving many of Mali’s
poor even more vulnerable,” FAO

“We used to move up and down with our livestock, looking for
water and grass, but most of the times we found none. Life was
unliveable. The Sahara is coming down, very fast,” Abdoulaye says

In the end, Abdoulaye’s family had to leave their home and
broke up; Abdoulaye and his brother Ousmane heading to Benin’s
commercial capital Cotonou in 2015, after a brief stint in Burkina
Faso, as the rest of their family headed for Mali’s capital,

Malian girls stand in the shade in Kidal, North of Mali. Photo
MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

Threatened with creeping desertification …

The U.N. says nearly 98 percent of Mali is threatened with
creeping desertification, as a result of nature and human activity.
the Sahara Desert keeps expanding southward at a rate of 48 km a
year, further degrading the land and eradicating the already scarce
livelihoods of populations, Reuters reported

The Sahara, an area of 3.5 million square miles, is the largest
‘hot’ desert in the world and home to some 70 species of
mammals, 90 species of resident birds and 100 species of reptiles,
according to DesertUSA. And it is expanding, its size is
registered at 10 percent larger than a century ago, LiveScience

The Sahel, the area between The Sahara in the north and the
Sudanian Savanna in the south, is the
region where temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on

The cost of land degradation is currently estimated at about
$490bn per year, much higher than the cost of action to prevent it,
according to UNCCD recent studies on the economics of land
desertification, land degradation and drought.

Roughly 40 percent of the world’s degraded land is found in
areas with the highest incidence of poverty and directly impacts
the health and livelihoods of an estimated 1.5 billion people,
according to the U.N.

In a country where six million tonnes of wood is used per year,
reports say Malians are mercilessly smashing their already-fragile
landscape, bringing down 4,000 square kilometres of tree cover each
year in search for timber and fuel.

Lack of rain has also been making matters worse, especially for
the cotton industry, of which the country remains the continent
’s largest producer, with 750,000 tonnes produced in the 2018 to
2019 agriculture season. Environmentalists believe Mali’s average
rainfall has dropped by 30 percent since 1998 with droughts
becoming longer and more frequent.

… and conflict for resources

Paul Melly, Chatham House Africa consultant, tells IPS that
desertification reduces the scope for agriculture and pastoralism
to remain viable.

“And of course, that may lead a few disenchanted members of
the population, particularly young men, to be attracted by
alternative livelihood options, including the money that can be
offered by trafficking gangs or terrorist groups,” he says.

Ousmane echoes Melly’s sentiments, saying: “The temptation
is too much when you live in desertification-hit areas because you
don’t get enough food to hit and water to drink.

“That’s where the bad guys start showing up on your
door[step] to tell you that if you join them, you will get plenty
food, water and pocket money. The solution is to run away, as far
as you can to avoid falling into that trap.”

Consequently, Ousmane and Abdoulaye sold the few remaining
animals the family had so they could leave the country.

In Burkina Faso they hoped to find work in farming. 

However, they were not always welcomed.

“We could feel the resentment from locals, so I told my
brother we should leave before it gets ugly because there were
already some tensions between local communities over what appeared
to be land resources,” he says.

Chatham House’s Melly confirms this: “There is no doubt that
the overall context, of increasing pressure on fragile and
sometimes degrading natural resources, is a contributory factor to
the overall pressures in the region and, thus, potentially, to

 Like elsewhere on the continent, severe environmental
degradation appears to be among the root causes of inter-ethnic

Using the Darfur region as a case study, the Worldwatch Institute says: “To a
considerable extent, the conflict is the result of a slow-onset
disaster—creeping desertification and severe droughts that have
led to food insecurity and sporadic famine, as well as growing
competition for land and water.”

What is being done?

Projects such as the U.N. Convention to Combat
Land Degradation Neutrality
project aimed at preventing and/or
reversing land degradation are some of the interventions to stop
the growing desert. 

  • Another large that aims to wrestle back the land swallowed by
    The Sahara is the Great Green
    Wall (GGW)
    , an eight-billion-dollar project launched by the
    African Union (AU) with the blessing of the UNCCD, and the backing
    of organisations such as the World Bank, the European Union and
  • Since its launch in 2007, major progress has been made in
    restoring the fertility of Sahelian lands.
  • Nearly 120 communities in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have
    been involved in a green belt project that resulted in the
    restoration more than 2,500 hectares of degraded and drylands,
    according to the UNCCD.
  • More than two million seeds and seedings have also been planted
    from 50 native species of trees.

Everyone, including terrorists are equal in the face of the
expanding Sahara

But there remain gaps and many in Mali still remain

Community leader Hassan Badarou spent several years teaching
Islam in rural Mali and Niger. He tells IPS Mali has a very complex

“It is not easy to live in these areas. People there face
double threats. It is double stress to flee from both armed
conflict and desertification. And such people need to be welcomed
and assisted, and not be seen as a threat to locals

“That is why we used to preach tolerance and solidarity
wherever we went, to avoid a situation whereby local communities
would feel that their meagre resources are under threat from
newcomers. There should be a dialogue, an honest and frank dialogue
when communities take on each other over land and water
resources,” he advises.

Against the expanding Sahara, all are equal. Fadimata, an
internally displaced person from northern Mali, tells IPS that
climate change is affecting everyone in the Sahel, including

“I saw with my own eyes how a group of heavily-armed young men
came to a village, looking for food.

“They said they wanted to do no harm, but wanted something to
eat. Of course we were very scared, but the villagers ended up
putting something together for these poor young men. They sat down
and ate, and drank plenty of water and left afterwards. I think it
is better that way than to kill villagers and steal their food,
livestock and water.”

The post
Displaced by the Desert: An expanding Sahara leaves Broken Families
and Violence in its Wake
appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Displaced by the Desert: An expanding Sahara leaves Broken Families and Violence in its Wake