ONCE upon a field trip, I felt like being dumped in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, without food or water. I was then in my salad 30’s when I first tasted what it means to be a citizen of the Sahel.
I had just joined a growing group of journalists initiated into a new genre of journalism which many considered a dream of sorts: Reporting the environment.
Our group hit the southern fringes of the Sahel belt in the Northern regions of Niger. As field leaders dished out cold water bottles, the water soon turned lukewarm, then outright hot, within minutes.
That’s the Agadez… steaming, sweltering hot during the day and cold at night. It was here that I first heard– and actually saw--people working to hold back the advance of desert sands from eating up prime agricultural land. And, it looked as futile as it was also promising. Niger has been on Africa’s migration route for centuries, and particularly the Agadez region.
In recent years, travellers heading north have been joined by thousands of people moving south, either expelled from Algeria or returning from Libya.
The people at the frontline, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) in French, is facing new challenges: Providing medical and humanitarian assistance in Niger’s Agadez region since August 2018.
Far from stopping the flow of people, the recent criminalisation of migration by both European and non-European governments has significantly increased the vulnerability of people on the move, whether they are migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, traders or seasonal workers.
Forced to avoid the usual routes, people are taking more dangerous ones–across the vast desert and the Aïr Mountains–putting them at risk of exploitation and violence.
People expelled from Algeria are either brought into Niger on official convoys or dropped near border villages, from where they have to walk to a nearby village centre, usually exhausted and without anything, but their clothes to stand up in.
Sitting within our comfort zones, it’s difficult to imagine life on the fringes of existence; As we sip coffee in air-con offices, we do not notice the effect and reality of what we do to contribute in the making of deserts even as we chop down trees within our backyards.
Now Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou is calling for a “global response” to the problems of land degradation that threaten the arid Sahel belt.
Addressing the UN’s Climate Commission for the Sahel Region at the United Nations, Mahamadou said the region’s 250 million people were now struggling with drought, desertification and other impacts of climate change.
“The situation in the Sahel has global stakes, and it requires a global response,” said Issoufou. Niger’s farmers lose 100,000 hectares of arable land every year, said Issoufou, as unpredictable rainfall, extreme temperatures and droughts are drying up watering holes that livestock herders relied upon.
“It’s always possible to reverse the trend and reverse those challenges, but that requires adaptive efforts that are sustainable and collective action with the help of our partners,” said Issouffou. T
he coast-to-coast Sahel belt stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, passing through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea, and other African countries.
At the meeting, UN secretary- general Antonio Guterres said that the Sahel’s population contributed very little to climate change and yet it “suffers the most” from rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall.
Famers and breeders who used to live in harmony now fight against each other for lands that are more and more reduced and this is making an unstable situation even worse,” said Guterres.
“Fights between communities are getting worse and give way to a lot of death and the displacement of populations.”
In a written statement, the President of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, has called the Sahel the “frontline of Africa’s battle against climate change.”
“In Africa, we have millions of farmers suffering from the devastating impact of drought in the Sahel. It is not just their livelihoods that are at stake, but their communities, but their ways of life,” Adesina said, calling for financial interventions to face up to this critical challenge of our time.”
“For too long, we have been short-changed by climate change. But, we can no longer be short-changed by climate finance,” Adesina said in his remarks.
This past decade, the Bank has supported more than $2 billion of investment in the region and has pledged $1.3 billion more towards the Sahel Commission’s investment plan, which will run between 2018 and 2030.
The Bank has also committed $20 million for the project preparation of the solar energy scheme codenamed ‘Desert to Power’ which will generate 10,000MW for the region’s 250 million people– virtually turning the vast Sahel desert into the next renewable energy powerhouse.
The Bank’s vision of the Sahel is one of green growth and prosperity founded on clean, reliable and affordable energy systems that power households, industry, and commerce while securing resilience in the face of climate change. Recently, we’ve witnessed millions of young climate activists marching in protests from Australia to Iceland, all in a global climate strike to pressure world leaders to redouble their efforts on global warming.
“Their voices still echo and…it is only right that they should have a voice and a seat at the table of climate change,” says Akinwumi “Akin” Adesina, President of the African Development Bank.
E-mail: shanimpinga@ gmail.com, +255 712 122 128