Climate Change

How desertification is silently fueling conflicts

More than 100 countries are at the risk of desertification. Left unchecked, this could fuel conflicts and displace 700 million people worldwide by 2050

By Snigdha Das
Published: Friday 30 August 2019
An internally displaced persons camp in Darfur. Photo: Oxfam

On August 17, 2019, Sudan’s military council and civilian opposition leaders signed a landmark peace agreement, paving the way for democracy in the most impoverished and volatile country that was under dictatorship for nearly 30 years.

As preparations for signing the agreement were still on in capital Khartoum, violence erupted in the country’s far-west wilayat or state, North Darfur. About 25 armed herders, riding camels and motorcycles, opened fire on people working on farms next to an internally displaced persons camp in Shangil Tobaya locality.

According to people in the camp, it was a “revenge attack”. A few days earlier, the farmers had impounded the herders’ camels and other livestock as they trespassed on the farms and handed over the animals to the police.

Soon after the incident, the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) — a joint peacekeeping mission trying to bring stability to the war-torn Darfur region since 2007 — issued a statement calling on both farmers and pastoralists to exercise restraint.

While confrontations in Darfur are commonly framed as “ethnic hatred”, UNAMID links such incidences to farmers attempting to access land for farming and being prevented from doing so by armed pastoralists. It said the incidences particularly increase during the rainy season. According to media reports, at least 37 such confrontations have been reported from Shangli Tobaya in July alone.

Water and fertile land are valuable resources in a country where arid and semi-arid lands cover 170 million hectares (ha), or 72 per cent of the area, shows an estimate by Abd Almohsin Rizgalla Khairalseed, professor at the University of Sinnar, Sudan.

The study, published in ARPN Journal of Science and Technology in 2015, identified Sudan as “one of the most seriously affected countries by desertification in Africa”.

While droughts and insufficient rainfall are characteristic of western Sudanese territories, primarily in North Darfur, research shows a link between armed clashes and prolonged droughts in the region.

Between 1950 and 1990, the region witnessed three periods of droughts — mild in the mid-1960s; relatively heavy between 1972 and 1975; and, almost of catastrophic proportions in 1982-84.

These periods of drought were accompanied by the outbreak of armed clashes. The most severe and intense of these clashes occurred in the mid-1980s.

Over time, those skirmishes turned into a full-scale war, according to a paper presented at 2018 WASD (World Association for Sustainable Development) 16th International Annual Conference held in Geneva.

While isolated drought years have little permanent effect on environment, almost two decades of drought within the last half-century have certainly had a major influence on the vegetation profile and soil conditions, aggravating desertification, fuelling conflicts and increasing the number of war and climate refugees in the region.

At present, Sudan hosts over two million refugees, most living in camps.

Desertification has created a number of social and economic stressors, such as those related to food security, wealth and productivity, explained Scott Edwards, senior crisis adviser with Amnesty International, a human rights organisation.

Populations that lack resiliency to these stressors — which tend to be the poor — may choose to migrate, seek other means of production or become dependent on others for subsistence. These responses to a worsening environment make conflict more likely.

“In places like Darfur, where the politics are not geared toward dispute reconciliation, we will be more likely to see conflicts, say, over diminishing resources, over access to power or caused by grievances arising from stagnating economic opportunities and growth. Ironically, places facing rapid desertification are also the places with the least developed politics to manage the conflicts,” he said.

In this period of Great Acceleration in the Anthropocene epoch, Sudan holds a grim lesson for the world. Some 110 countries are at the risk of desertification.

The World Atlas of Desertification, prepared by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), released in 2018, shows that more than 75 per cent of Earth’s land area is already degraded and some 418 million ha, or half of the size of the European Union, is getting degraded every year.

Most of this is happening in Africa and Asia, which account for almost 67 per cent of the degradation occurring in dryland areas. By 2040, over 70 per cent of the big cities (housing 0.3 million population) currently in non-dryland areas will grow drier. In contrast, 43 per cent of the big cities in dryland areas will be hit by desertification.

As a consequence of accelerated deforestation, which is a major driver of land degradation and desertification, it will become more difficult to mitigate the effects of climate change, observes JRC.

Together, land degradation and climate change could lead to a 10 per cent loss in global crop yield by 2050, says a press release issued by the European Commission. Most of this will occur in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, where land degradation could halve crop production.

By 2050, more than 90 per cent of the global land could become degraded and 700 million people displaced. The figure could reach up to 10 billion by end of this century.

Soon, there could be many more countries grappling with North Darfur-like bloody violence.

Burkina Faso

By Abdel Aziz Nabaloum

Antoine Zoma of Burkina Faso is well aware of this dual threat of desertification and climate change. He owns three hectares of semi-arid land in his village Koroli, five kilometres from the town of Réo.

According to the traditional practice, he prepared his field for sowing corn in early May. “But there was no sign of rain over the next two months,” he said.

On the night of July 16, just as his tilled field had started looking barren with soil getting blown away, his village received moderate rain showers.

“During my childhood, ears of corn used to mature around this time of the year,” said Zoma as he hurries to his field for sowing corn seeds. Uneven distribution of rainfall and high temperatures has become the norm over the past 10 years. This has severely compromised soil productivity, said Zoma, adding that his usage of NPK (nitrogen-phosphorous and potassium) fertilisers has doubled in the past decade.

Agro-ecologist Sam Tokoro Bacyé blames the situation on progressive deforestation of the savannas for firewood, bush fires and preparing grazing land for animals. Population explosion has only worsened the situation. According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one-third of Burkina Faso has degraded.


By Maina Waruru  

In Kenya, another factor is at play. On July 6, owners of plush conservancies in Laikipia County called a crisis meeting to discuss a peculiar problem. A foreign plant introduced half a century ago to arrest desertification is now degrading thousands of hectares.

Opuntia stricta, a cactus native to the Americas, is choking the native flora and reducing land productivity, said owners of the conservancies that have played host to some of the world’s famous celebrities including Prince William of the British royal family.

Prosipis juliflora, called mathenge in Swahili, is the other such species threatening the life and livelihood of people in arid and semi-arid parts of the country. According to analysts, both the invasive species have flourished in the country due to recurring droughts.

Since 1975, the country has recorded at least 12 major periods of drought. The latest one, which began in 2014 and continues to engulf parts of the Horn of Africa, has doubled the number of food insecure people in Kenya — to 2.7 million from 1.3 million.

Maize production in the coastal areas has decreased by 99 per cent compared to the long-term average.

“The (drought) cycle has reduced over the years, from every 10 years, down to every five years, further down to every 2-3 years, and currently every year is characterised by some dry spell,” according to a study by South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.

In 2015, the government launched the National Action Programme for Combating Desertification, at a cost of $425 million. The programme document showed that drylands are getting more vulnerable to desertification.

Frequent droughts, influx of people from neighouring areas hit by conflicts and natural disasters, overgrazing and sub-division of land into uneconomical parcel sizes have further worsened the productivity potential of the harsh and fragile land, said the document.

These drylands account for over 80 per cent of Kenya and support over 20 per cent of the country’s population, 50 per cent livestock and over 70 per cent wildlife.

Geoffrey Wahungu, director-general of the country’s National Environment Management Authority, warned the pressures will only increase in the future as the country’s population is expected to hit 50 million by 2020, up from 39 million in 2009.


By Bahija Belmabrouk

In Tunisia, which borders the Mediterranean Sea on the one hand and Sahara desert on the other, farmlands in 12 of the 24 governorates have lost productivity.

“The ever-expanding Sahara desert is engulfing our farms. But the government has forgotten us,” said Taoufik Toumi, regional president of agriculture and fishing in Kebelli state.

“It claims to be spending 2 million Tunisian dinars ($0.7 million) a year to combat desertification, but it has hardly helped,” Toumi added.

Desertification and land degradation affect 75 per cent of the country’s 13 million ha farmland, noted the general directorate for forestry at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Adel ben Youssef, an expert on environment and climate change, blamed it on the practice of monoculture, overgrazing and clearing of steppes for the extension of cereal crops.

The impact can be seen in Jeffara, one of the most desertified areas, where crop plantations have been established on loose soil. A 2007 paper by the Research Institute for Development, France, which develops strategies to reverse land degradation, said the land is “reaching saturation level and soil degradation has intensified”.

Between 1974 and 1999, the areas under cultivation increased by 180 per cent in the mountains, 356 per cent on the piedmonts and 798 per cent on central plain.

“This intensification of agricultural land uses stems partly from a state policy which, since the 1960s, has been in favour of land privatisation, and has generated a land rush.

Arboriculture has therefore developed at the expense of livestock farming in the piedmonts and the plains, even on land where the terrain is unsuitable. This trend is a threat to a number of ecosystems which indeed are in danger of disappearing.”

Desertification has so far, driven 792 plant species, 17 mammals and two reptiles to extinction. The toll will continue to rise if concrete steps are not taken.


By Mawolo Adolphus

The impact of desertification is more acute in Senegal, known for its rich agro-pastoralists. The agriculture sector is a major contributor to the national gross domestic print (GDP). In 2018, the sector’s contribution stood at 16.6 per cent to GDP, according to the World Bank.

The livestock sector contributes 7.4 per cent to the national GDP.

“In recent years, there has been a gradual movement of people from the most affected regions of Matam and St Louis in the north and Fatik in the centre to places like Tambacounda in the east,” said Aminata Diop an independent expert on food security.

“Many herdsmen from my village have left for Dakar and other cities,” Diop said.

Tih Chuienui Nadia, an environmental scientist with the Senegal office of Earth Systems (an environmental and social consulting firm), identifies the causes of desertification in this tiny coastal country.

Like other parts of the world, the country is also experiencing extreme hot weather. But intensive agriculture and monoculture-based crops have acted as the tipping point, Nadia said.

With monoculture plantations, pest attacks have increased in the region. This type of agricultural practice has increased the use of fertilisers and pesticides, which has affected soil productivity.

“People have routinely exploited hectares of lands for decades to the point that they no longer have nutrients to support plant growth,” said Nadia.

“If efforts to restore natural vegetation are not proportionate to the rates at which the soil is being degraded, some parts of Senegal could turn into desert before the next decade clocks in,” she warned.

This also means Senegal could see North Darfur-like bloody violences between farmers and herders, so far unheard of in the country.

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