Droughts

   The Sahel lies along the southern edge of the Saharan Desert, covering about 4,500 kilometers from Senegal through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, and blends into the less arid Sudano-Sahel belt on its southern edge. The 50 million people of the Sahel pursue diverse livelihood strategies including agriculture, pastoral nomadism, fishing, short- and long-distance trading, and a variety of urban occupations. Farming in this region is almost entirely reliant on three months of summer rainfall, except along the banks of the major rivers, lakes, and other seasonal watercourses. The transport infrastructure is, however, poor. There are only three main railway lines, and many smaller towns have been linked to the cities by paved roads only since the 1980s. The Niger and Senegal rivers have provided transport arteries for centuries.
   Despite complex economic migration patterns and urban expansion in the 20th century, the vast majority of the region's rural dwellers are dependent on some form of rain-fed agriculture or pastoralism. Some suggest that there are no "normal" rainfall levels in this region, just fluctuating supplies and changing human demand for water. Three major droughts occurred in the 20th century-in 1910-1916, 1920-1921, 1930-1931, and 1941-1945-and a long period of below-average rainfall (termed "desiccation") began in the late 1960s and continued, with some interruptions, into the 1980s. Absolute minimum rainfall levels were recorded at many stations in 1983 and 1984. The period of poor rainfall in the 1970s struck particularly hard for many Sahelian farmers and pastoralists, causing an estimated 100,000 drought-related deaths.
   The devastating impacts of the droughts of the 1968-1974 and those that followed have had cumulative impacts, but these impacts form part of complex patterns of social and economic change, and it is almost impossible to separate the effects of the natural hazard (drought) from other factors that made individuals vulnerable. Vulnerability is an everyday situation for some people but a rare occurrence for others. It is important here to differentiate between meteorological drought-below-average moisture supply-and the effects of changing human land uses and practices. Low rainfall can be coped with if farmers and nomads have diverse livelihood systems or sufficient assets. Famine situations have resulted in aridity where drought conditions have surprised populations that were unprepared for them (as in the 1970s, when 15 years of good rainfall had encouraged many to overinvest in agriculture) and where the possible range of adjustments have been constrained by warfare, social status, or corruption and mismanagement.
   The Tuareg of Aïr suffered the most during the 1970s drought as they were forced to give up their nomadic way of life and settle around boreholes in the vicinity of Agadez, where they received food aid and lost about 95 percent of their cattle. Because many nomads became refugees, the population of Agadez climbed from 20,000 to 105,000 in less than three years. Another 50,000 Tuareg refugees from Mali migrated to Niger in search of relief. In the 1980s, another cycle of drought and famine devastated Niger as Lake Chad shrunk and the Niger River reached its lowest level since the 1920s. As the drought spread in the 1980s, it is believed that the majority of the population was living on foreign food aid, with some 500,000 people displaced by the drought, most of whom were Tuareg pastoralists.
   In Mali, in contrast to the 1968-1974 droughts, the 1984-1985 drought afflicted the entire country. Most of those concerned were Tuareg and Maure pastoralists. It affected primarily the regions of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. As a result, famine seriously affected the nomads more than it did the sedentary. It is estimated that about 100,000 people perished within the three regions. Livestock losses in the Gao region were estimated at 50 percent. The return of normal rains in 1986 ended the drought. As a result of these recurrent droughts, Mali, Niger and neighboring Saharan states established the Comité Inter-Etats pour La Lutte Contre la Sècheresse (CILSS). This organization set up the Sahel Institute based in Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen) . . 2014.

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