In Africa’s Western Sahel, an arid region on the southern border of the Sahara Desert, the population is expected to double to 450 million by 2050. Meanwhile, temperatures are projected to climb three degrees Celsius above 1950 levels, as climate change brings on more unpredictable and extreme weather.
In a new commentary published in Nature, three UC Berkeley researchers and their coauthors argue that without considerable government investment in four areas—family planning, girls’ education, agriculture, and security—Western Sahel countries’ political and economic systems could collapse. In a region with widespread hunger and malnutrition, rising food and economic insecurity could pave the way for famines, mass migration, and violent conflict. Only by investing heavily in forward-looking programs, the researchers argue, can governments avert serious disruptions down the line.
Over eight years, the group tracked trends in population and food security for seven predominantly Muslim regions: Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, and northern Nigeria, collectively referred to in the commentary as the Sahel study region (SSR).
“World leaders have a disappointing record when it comes to crises that take decades to unfold,” write the authors. For example, the paper points out how greater and earlier investment in HIV/AIDS prevention in the 1980s could have staved off millions of deaths—and saved billions of dollars—over the subsequent 20 years.
They found that investments in agriculture could help mitigate future impacts of climate change in the SSR. Soil degradation, erosion, and erratic rainfall—already familiar problems in Western Sahel—are expected to worsen with a warming climate. But by implementing optimal farming methods—such as building irrigation infrastructure, using appropriate seeds, and adopting agroforestry—SSR countries could as much as double food production. Such a significant boost in crops would go a long way for public health. In Niger, for example, stunted growth from malnutrition affects a full 44 percent of children under the age of five.
Today, write the researchers, only 4 percent of SSR cropland has irrigation infrastructure, and SSR farmers use only one-tenth the global average of fertilizer. With present day climate conditions, irrigation improvements alone could feed an additional 140 million people, without depleting groundwater or hurting freshwater ecosystems.
“Problems that are left unattended have a habit of becoming crises,” says coauthor Lorenzo Rosa, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management whose research focuses on the interactions between integrated energy, water, and agricultural systems. He says that crop yields could be bolstered by better land management, including retaining more rainwater, collecting runoff, and improving soil infiltration. “For example, Zaï-pits dug in the soil to concentrate water and nutrients allow crops to withstand drought,” says Rosa. “It’s a traditional farming practice that increased yield up to 500 percent.”