Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change Across the Dry and Vulnerable Sahel
This post is written by Olivier Le Blanc, Regional Outreach and Communication Advisor, USAID Senegal.
The Sahel is one of the poorest and most environmentally degraded regions of our planet. It is also considered one of the world’s most vulnerable areas to climate change, as temperatures there increase one-and-a-half times faster than in the rest of the world, according to the USAID Atlas Climate Change Risk Profile: West Africa Sahel.
This vulnerability is made worse by the region’s high dependence on rainfed agriculture and its natural resources to support food security and livelihoods, extremely rapid population growth and chronic humanitarian crises due to recurrent drought, flooding, epidemics and violent conflicts.
In Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — the countries that cover most of the Sahel — USAID is helping people, governments and various organizations to develop the means necessary to attenuate the increasingly destructive impacts of climate change.
One of USAID’s main areas of focus is agriculture. In the Sahel, agriculture is poorly mechanized, and almost entirely reliant on the limited three to four months of variable summer rainfall (June–September), making it highly vulnerable to climate variability and change.
Agriculture in the Sahel is extensive and employs large swathes of the population. It contributes 40 percent of the combined regional GDP and employs nearly 70 percent of the labor force in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger, and 52 percent in Mauritania.
Climate change poses a serious threat to farmers. Various forecasts, as shown in USAID Atlas Climate Change Risk Profile: West Africa Sahel, that the region's main harvest will decrease by 15 to 30 percent by 2080, and the same research indicates Chad and Niger could potentially lose their entire rainfed agriculture by 2100.
USAID implements several activities to help the people of the Sahel manage these threats. For example, USAID supports efforts to restore the fertility of the land by using techniques that can also reduce soil erosion and increase water retention. In Burkina Faso and Niger, over the past five years, 76,000 people applied these improved technologies to more than 120,000 hectares of land, the equivalent of nearly 70,000 soccer fields. As a result, farmers saw an average increase of 700 percent in sales.
USAID also helps farmers learn farming techniques such as soil conservation, efficient irrigation systems, conservation farming, food transformation, which promote climate-smart seeds that better resist extreme weather conditions.
Up to 50 million people throughout the Sahel are pastoralists. As access to pastures is at an all-time low, violent conflicts between resident farmers and pastoralists have been on the rise. USAID is contributing to reducing these conflicts by involving local governments, supporting communal land-management bodies, delineating animal migration corridors, and supporting the development of local conventions for the shared use of natural resources. In Southern Niger, this resulted in a 50-percent reduction in herder-farmer conflicts in just one year.
Another priority area is people’s access to and management of water resources. In the Sahel, surface water is limited and often seasonal, making groundwater a primary source of water for many people in the region. However, declines in rainfall, increases in temperature and more frequent droughts contribute to a decline in surface and groundwater availability and accessibility. For example, Lake Chad, the largest lake in the Sahel, has shrunk by 95 percent since the 1960s.
USAID works with various government entities so they are more capable of raising money and maintaining their water sources. For example, in Niger, USAID helped the government to set up the country’s very first water agency, which will equip the country to protect and share water among communities. Niger is planning to set up approximately 15 water agencies in watersheds across the country this decade.
Although surface water is increasingly scarce, groundwater is fairly abundant in the Sahel. These are, however, far from urban centers. As part of its efforts to address water access challenges, in 2021, USAID researched and mapped out groundwater availability in several regions of Burkina Faso and Niger. The results were shared with local, regional and national actors so they could better understand the potential and limitations of groundwater for humans, livestock and agriculture in their respective areas, including where and how to drill.
Large parts of the Sahel are currently affected by violent armed conflicts that have resulted in the displacement of nearly three million people. These movements are usually from rural areas to urban ones where a sudden population surge can exert immense pressure on already scarce resources, such as food and water. In a part of the world where more than 10 million people are in a situation of acute food insecurity or worse, this can have devastating consequences.
Resource scarcity can increase the risk of intercommunity conflict (e.g., between fishermen and farmers, farmers and pastoralists, locals and displaced people), intensify existing regional conflict and trigger outbreaks of new conflict.
In 2021, USAID aimed to provide life-saving assistance to an estimated one million people in the Sahel with a budget of more than $230 million dollars. In addition, USAID is linking its humanitarian assistance to long-term climate-sensitive activities. For example, in Burkina Faso, the USAID TerreEauVie (TEV) Activity provides assistance to communities hosting large numbers of displaced people to increase their ability to provide water to everyone. In Burkina Faso, the TEV Activity rehabilitated 20 water points to relieve the populations facing the waves of displaced persons.
USAID’s work in helping the people of the Sahel to mitigate the impacts and threats of climate change goes well beyond agriculture, water, land, health and nutrition. USAID also provides assistance in the areas of health, nutrition, governance, access to finance, micro-enterprises, fisheries, ecosystems, micro-infrastructure, livestock, and many more, with a particular focus on the needs of women and youth.
This support is provided through more than 150 activities with an annual budget of $650 million. Besides helping people prepare for an uncertain future, USAID's work successfully lifts people out of extreme poverty with spectacular results.
As climate change is a key priority for the U.S. government, USAID will continue to help the people of the Sahel to accelerate their development efforts and build a freer, safer and more prosperous future.