Environmental Issues in the Sahara Desert

Environmental degradation has taken place in the Sahara region over the past centuries. 5000 year old cave paintings have been found along the Libyan border from the Tassili des Ajjer Mountains in Algeria through Niger to Chad.
They depict large numbers of cattle herded by pastoralists and earlier paintings even show elephants and hippopotami. It is quite obvious that there has been a lowering of rainfall, but despite this there are plants that have survived.

Some factors are conspiring to make conditions even more difficult for these plants. Certain localities have been overstocked with domestic animals, especially around waterholes or wells. Also, the ever increasing demand for firewood has resulted in the reduction or removal of trees and bushes from large areas.

In years with high rainfall the pasture was good and the number of livestock was increased. However, when the drought of 1968-73 struck, many animals died. In Niger, the Agadez region suffered losses of 80% of the sheep and cattle, 70% of the goats and 45% of the camels. (The drought of 1983-84 was even more severe.) The high mortality was caused by lack of vegetation rather than lack of water.

It is estimated that firewood in the Sahel countries is used up 30% faster than it is produced. Most people living in the towns and cities use firewood for cooking, but this wood is now coming from areas up to 300 km away.

Elimane Fall wrote from Mali in Jeune Afrique: "One passes stunted thorn bushes burned by the heat and almost completely defoliated by goats and camels" and "One passes a vegetation defigured by clearing, bush fires and exploitation of wood for charcoal. One sees everywhere on the road wagons, even lorries carrying dead wood". R. Wilkinson wrote in the Guardian newspaper: "Mauritiana was once a land of forests and grasslands used by nomads which fringed the Sahara Desert. The tide of sand has now largely swallowed the country".

The removal of vegetation increases the reflectivity of the land which in turn inhibits rainfall by increasing fine airborne dust so that the air becomes hotter at higher altitudes preventing the formation of rain-bearing clouds. More than 100 million tonnes of dust are blown into the Atlantic each summer from West Africa and this increases as larger areas of land become denuded of vegetation.

There is a way to break this cycle of environmental destruction. Perennial plants exist in the Sahara and other deserts which stabilize the environment and give human food. The cultivation of these plants is constructive to the environment, and a more effective way of utilizing the scarce resources. Rainfed perennials don't consume drinking water as animals do. It is more effective to eat the plant parts directly than to feed them to animals and then eat the animals. If people live off the fruits, seeds and leaves of perennials the vegetative cover is left intact. When farmers cultivate edible perennials they increase their source of firewood, are more likely to gather the firewood without destroying the plants and protect the plants from being destroyed by others. As more species are tested and found to be suitable for cultivation by Eden, and as more farmers start to grow these species, more land will become stabilized. In the long term this will help the area to attract more rain. Also, species which are threatened with extinction will be protected not only by Eden in the research area but also by the farmers themselves.

Literature consulted for this article.

  1. Cloudsley-Thompson J.C. (1984). Introduction in Sahara Desert. Pergamon Press, Oxford, U.K.
  2. Timberlake L. (1985) Africa in crisis. Earthscan, London, U.K.
  3. Desertification in the Eghazer and Azawal region. Case study presented by the Government of Niger (early 1980's).
  4. Elimane Fall (1986) 'Mali - On ne peut plus fuir le desert'. Jeune Afrique, July 23rd.
  5. Verlet B. (1984) 'Le Sahara', 5th edition. Presses Universitaires de France.
  6. Wilkinson R. (1986) The Guardian, May 16th.

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