Burkina Faso, the people fighting desertification to save their land

Published on 12 NOV 2019
In collaboration with Davide Lemmi


Burkina Faso is one of the countries most severely affected by desertification. It’s at the mercy of water scarcity, soil degradation and humanitarian crises. The stories of hope and fear of a people fighting for their land. 

“We do what we can to grow millet, but the rainy season gets shorter every year and the land is no longer productive”. Not far from his village, in a rural area of Ouagadougu district in northern Burkina Faso, Moussa looks to the sky, despondent. He’s dripping with sweat as he and his brother Idriss till the field with a rudimentary wooden plough. Moussa tries to help the donkey pull, while Idriss uses all his weight to drive the ploughshare deeper into the dried-up earth.

In some places in this semi-arid region, the soil is as hard as concrete, whilst in others it’s too sandy and can’t be used for agriculture. Except for some bushes and the occasional tree, the horizon is bare, dusty and incandescent. Nature itself, here, is an expression of suffering. “Now we’re also threatened by farmers who want to take over the last fertile lands. If things go on like this, we’ll have to move,” Idriss states, disillusioned.

Climate change in the Sahel

The two Burkinabe farmers are experiencing the same dramatic pressures of food insecurity and political instability faced by millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa because of the current climate crisis. Burkina Faso’s northern regions, like the entire Sahel belt, have for decades been suffering the consequences of desertification, soil degradation and increasingly frequent droughts.

On the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, 17 June, the UN Secretary General presented a report stating that every year these factors cause 24 billion tonnes of arable soil to disappear worldwide. The economic consequences of desertification and land degradation amount to losses worth 490 billion dollars a year. The repercussions are severe and wide-ranging. According to UN data, sustenance for at least a billion people across over 100 countries is at risk.

The advancing desert

The worst hit areas are sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel in particular, where environmental degradation has been very rapid. This has led to the disappearance of entire expanses of arable land and has threatened livestock farming. The dire situation is worsened by widespread poverty, low education levels, territorial isolation and growing political instability, which in turn has led to a lack of investment in development. It’s no coincidence that 60 of the estimated 135 million climate refugees that will be forced to migrate due to desertification by 2035 will move from sub-Saharan Africa towards North Africa and Europe.

Desertification is an often irreversible process that affects the Earth’s surface where the biosphere has disappeared, leading to soil degradation and loss of nutrients and, therefore, decreased land fertility. Soil salinity levels consequently increase, intensifying erosive phenomena and landslides as well as extreme climatic events.

Desertification and humanitarian crises

In 1994, following the increasingly frequent humanitarian crises caused by famines in the Sahel, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification was drafted to address the issue. Desertification was described as “soil degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid dry areas resulting from various factors including climate variations and human activity”. These last two points are key in highlighting the causes directly and indirectly related to anthropogenic impact. Global warming is leading temperatures to increase in the Sahel while also causing a diminution in season rainfall, which becomes both too rare and too intense when it does occur. Direct human action – deforestation, excessively intensive farming practices on the small amount of fertile soil available, and stress on surface and subterranean water basins – exacerbates the issue.

In the entire Sahel belt, where land and resources are diminishing, population growth has put the environment under even more pressure. This leads to a further worsening of land degradation and, according to projections, the situation will only become more critical. In fact, according to the United Nations, the area’s population will nearly triple by 2050 – rising from 75 to almost 200 million.Without direct intervention through sustainable development and land recovery policies in the region, migration phenomena will keep increasing. The same goes for the instability caused by the rush for the few remaining resources.Djimé Adoum, Executive Secretary for the Comité permanent inter-etats de lutte contre la sécheresse dans le Sahel (CILSS)


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

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