Tejas Vir Singh
Research Intern at Jindal Centre for the Global South
O.P. Jindal Global University
E-mail: 21jgls-tvsingh@jgu.edu.in

What is Desertification?

Desertification refers to the degradation caused to land by various factors, including climate change, deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, political instability or even poverty (Britannica). The rate of this degradation has increased around 30 to 35 times than the historical rate (Nunez, 2019), largely due to rapid urbanisation, mining and agricultural activities, where vegetation is cleared away for crops or buildings, which leads to soil erosion. This leads to the soil not being able to retain water or plants. It is estimated that 2 billion people live on land vulnerable to desertification, and that another 50 million can be added to it by 2030 (Nunez, 2019). A region most vulnerable to it is the Sahel, due to high population growth and increased farming.

Map showing the Sahel region across Africa and the ‘Sahelian’ countries.
Source: Office of the Special Envoy for the Sahel.

The case of the Sahel

The Sahel is a semi-arid region in Africa that acts as a transitionary area between the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. It is a belt that has had influences from the Islamic and Arab North Africa and the indigenous and traditional cultures of the sub-Saharan Africa. However, the region suffers from various troubles such as political instability, terrorism and poverty. Countries like Mali and Nigeria face threats from extremists while others like Niger and Burkina Faso face the problem of rapid population growth.

It is also a fragile environment where millions are affected by drought, food insecurity and climate change. There are estimated to be 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons, and land degradation, violence and drought have affected some 2.5 million pastoralists in the region (Coning & Krampe, 2020 p.31).

Moreover, the region is subject to extreme weather conditions, from droughts to floods, and this has become even more unpredictable due to climate change and is expected to worsen further, including a 3-5 degrees celsius rise in temperatures by 2050 (Coning & Krampe, 2020 p.32).

It is also interesting to note how colonial influences have ended up shaping pastoralist and grazing patterns, due to the borders that had been drawn up by the European countries to demarcate their colonies. For example, nomadic herders in Darfur, Sudan are unable to access historical routes across the border into Chad and Central African Republic for greener pastures, due to closed borders both international and domestic (Stewart, 2008, p. 7). This forces nomadic herders and pastoralists to use less greener pastures that they can still access, which can lead to overgrazing and contribute to desertification.

Map showing the migration routes taken by livestock across the Darfur region in Sudan.
Source: United Nations Environmental Program

Much of the GDP of the region is led by agriculture, and in order to increase food grain production, the policies in the region have focused more on grain production than animal husbandry, which has led to a favourable land allocation to grain (Raineri 2020 p.5), and has thus led to a decline in malnutrition and undernourishment, although unevenly. However, the bias towards agriculture has led to communal clashes in many areas.

One of the major humanitarian crises in the Sahel is that of terrorism, which has increased manifold in recent years.

The problem with the current policies

Map showing the concentration of terrorist attacks in the Sahel from 2007 to 2021.
Source: Dragonfly Terrorism Tracker, IEP calculations.

Most Sahelian countries in West Africa face the prominent problem of terrorism, with Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger being the hardest hit. Nigeria too, has had this problem particularly because of the Boko Haram, which was once the deadliest insurgent group in the world, but has largely subsided due to counter-terrorist operations (Vision of Humanity).

Many Sahelian governments have been pleading to the international community for aid particularly to fight a menace that threatens their stability—terrorist groups infiltrating the countries from the Sahara desert.  The narrative that gets them aid is that these groups with links to al-Qaeda and Islamic State wish to expand their influence in the region, a gateway to sub-Saharan Africa, by attacking agriculture and their frontier soldiers, and is exacerbated by desertification. Given its colonial influence, countries like France are notable with their military presence in the region, with the aim to fight off these militants from the Sahara. However, this narrative of the Sahelian governments, particularly Mali and Burkina Faso, must be consumed with caution.

The situation in these countries is similar to a revolutionary insurrection against the state and its law enforcement. Jihadists have successfully been able to gain acceptance amongst the locals by emphasizing on the bad management of the governments and their corrupt practices, along with abuses from the Forest Services in the Sahel instituted by the governments there to stringently protect trees and prevent illegal logging, a remnant of its colonial past (Raineri, 2020, p. 4). In Mali, for example, the Forest Service was given great autonomy to use heavy penalties to stop illegal logging to ensure sustainability; however, the semi-nomadic shepherds were most negatively impacted as they were inhibited from collecting firewood (Raineri, 2020, pp. 4-5). These marginalised communities are thus able to consume the propaganda spread by terror groups, and thus helps in increasing such activities in the region. As Raineri (2020) puts it, the measures that were once put in place to check deforestation and desertification have now become a fuel for terrorist activities in the Sahel (p. 5).

Meanwhile in Burkina Faso, another example of a self-defeating mechanism that seeks to protect the environment at the cost of its people is the Burkinabe authorities’ decision to conserve swathes of land in the eastern regions of the country for recreational parks. This has also led to resentment amongst the locals, who feel that they have been neglected over the enjoyment of elites and tourists (Raineri, 2020, p. 6).

Food security is being achieved in the region by pursuing a policy that favours cereal production over pastoralism, which adds on to the conflict by adding a land allocation perspective, with the disadvantaged pastoralists siding with extremist groups to make their demand for protection heard (Raineri, 2020, p. 5).

This is not to say that the Sahelian governments should be prevented from accessing these funds or punishing them, but an intervention that ensures that such self-defeating policies can be amended or removed is necessary for the future stability of the region; with these policies, the governments here are shooting themselves in the foot. Such policies that leave out and destine a part of their population to eternal poverty and repression at the cost of ‘environmental protection’ are clearly not the way forward to prevent desertification.

The way forward: The Green Wall

The Great Green Wall project was started by the African Union in 2007 to restore degraded land on the continent, particularly the Sahel. 22 African countries are a part of this, and some of its objectives include expanding economic opportunities, food security and climate resilience (UNCCD). It pledged 8 billion USD to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land and absorb 250 million tons of carbon (UNCCD).

Although the original plan was to simply plant trees en masse, it has developed into an ingenious traditional approach by farmers who made another form of green wall instead. The previous idea of simply planting trees was criticized by scientists, given the harsh climate of the region; some commented that if the trees planted here would all survive, the place would look more like Amazonia (Morrison, 2016). However, farmers have instead focused on using traditional approaches of farming, such as using deep planting pits in dry land that ensured water infiltration in Burkina Faso, and farmer-managed natural regeneration in Niger (Morrison, 2016).  This has led scientists to compare the greenery achieved in Niger to that of Ireland (Morrison, 2016).

However, this project is mostly advanced in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. Outside of these countries, many have only recently started working on their respective parts of the Green Wall. Thus, the wall is only partially successful as of now.  The biggest problem the project faces is the high population growth in the Sahel, projected to double in the next 20 years (Morrison, 2016), which would only hinder it more the longer it is delayed.

Outside the Green Wall initiative, a united effort by the Sahelian countries is much needed. There have been formation of groups such as ECOWAS, UN office for West Africa and Sahel (UNOWAS) and the G5 of Sahel made for this purpose. ECOWAS, however, is limited due to its prevalence of state sovereignty which inhibits action against a problem plaguing the region in general, but taking place in a particular country. For example, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria is an issue that other ECOWAS nations cannot take action upon without disputing Nigeria’s sovereignty (de Coning & Krampe, 2020, p. 33). Meanwhile, G5 Sahel (which includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad) has been quite successful in launching strategies with the IMF, World Bank and the UN for renewable energy and smart agriculture (de Coning & Krampe, 2020, p. 38).


The Sahel is a crossroads region between the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa, facing imminent threat from desertification that has the potential of affecting a huge portion of their population that is dependent on agriculture and would be affected by the encroachment of the desert southwards. Existing policies on efforts to protect forests and increase foodgrain production in countries like Burkina Faso and Mali are colonial remnants whose implementation is quite flawed, for it affects the pastoralist community and deprives them of their livelihood, causing them to accept and support extremists with links to terror groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Moreover, the largest initiative of the region, the Great Green Wall project has been transformed from an ‘unscientific’ fantasy to a more practical reality thanks to the traditional approaches of the farmers, which can possibly aid in the success of this endeavour.

However, most countries in the Sahel have only recently begun this project; more unity and innovative ideas are required amongst the countries to prevent desertification and the humanitarian side effects caused by problematic approaches that have been implemented by the political elite. Perhaps the initiative being more popularised across the region by Non-Governmental Organisations can aid in reducing the corruption that has seeped in because of government control over the project. As shown by the farmers in Burkina Faso, it is the people that know best. With more local than administrative support for the Green Wall, desertification in the Sahel can be easily combatted.


Britannica. (n.d.). Desertification. In Britannica. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from  https://www.britannica.com/science/desertification.

de Coning, C., & Krampe, F. (2020). Multilateral cooperation in the area of climate-related security and development risks in Africa. In Multilateral cooperation in the area of climate-related security and development risks in Africa: Background Paper for UN75 Sub-regional Meeting on Multilateral Cooperation to Address Climate Related Security and Development Risks in Africa 3-4 March 2020, Dakar, Senegal (pp. 23–39). Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25754.6

Morrison, J. (2016, August 23). The Great Green Wall did not stop desertification, but it evolved into something that might. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/great-green-wall-stop-desertification-not-so-much-180960171/.

Nunez, C. (2019). Desertification, explained. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/desertification.

Raineri, L. (2020). SAHEL CLIMATE CONFLICTS?: When (fighting) climate change fuels terrorism. European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep28786

UNCCD (n.d.). Great Green Wall Initiative. https://www.unccd.int/our-work/ggwi.

Vision of Humanity (2022). Sahel has become the new epicentre of terrorism. https://www.visionofhumanity.org/sahel-emerges-as-the-new-epicentre-of-terrorism/.  

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.

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