The long and successful life of ‘desertification’ in the Sahel

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The Great Green Wall. Source: ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute)/ Agence France Presse.

Posted on January 11, 2019 by whitehorsepress

In today’s blog, Tor A. Benjaminsen and Pierre Hiernaux introduce the subject of their article, ‘From Desiccation to Global Climate Change: A History of the Desertification Narrative in the West African Sahel, 1900–2018’ in Global Environment, part of a Special Issue on Deserts in Environmental History (Spring 2019).

The Great Green Wall. Source: https://www.unccd.int/actions/great-green-wall-initiative

While the Sahel has become greener since the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, the idea that this large region south of the Sahara desert is becoming more desert-like is, with the recent focus on global climate change, again thriving.

Global warming affects the Sahel as every other world region. While temperatures are increasing in the Sahel, climate models are more uncertain regarding future rainfall trends. On average, models predict a slight increase in precipitation except in the extreme west where a decrease is predicted. In addition, increased variability of the rainfall pattern is expected, with more frequent extreme events, large storms and long dry spells.

However, while rainfall is projected to increase, with some qualifications, the most common and mediatised depiction of climate change in the Sahel remains as a trend towards a warmer and more arid climate, which again would lead to ‘desertification’. And thus, ‘adaptation to climate change’, which has become a leitmotif for most policies and development projects at all scales from the local to the global, is still interpreted as ‘adaptation to desertification.’

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.