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

By Issa Sikiti da Silva
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

BAMAKO, Mali/COTONOU, Benin , Oct 18 2019 (IPS) – Abdoulaye Maiga 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 painful.

“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 explains.

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 Nations.

  • 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 displacement.

“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 says.

“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 emotionally.

In the end, the Maiga 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, Bamako.

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. Besides, 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 reported.

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 Earth

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.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

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