The Sahel, which means ‘edge’ in Arabic, is a transitional area between the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical zones to the south. The area receives precious little rain with an annual rainfall of just 200 millimetres in northern areas, and 800 millimetres in the south.
The region’s people – many of whom are dependent on agriculture and livestock – find themselves living both literally and figuratively on the edge due to harsh and unpredictable climatic conditions, unremitting poverty, poor access to education, and political instability.
For the past century, the Sahelian countries of Africa have experienced recurrent drought and famine. The region witnessed some of its most serious food shortages in the 1970s and 80s, with approximately 250,000 fatalities because of repeated droughts between 1968 and 1973, and again during 1983 and 1984. The droughts of 1974 left about 750,000 people in Mali, Niger and Mauritania totally dependent on food aid.
Since that time, countries such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger have continued to suffer from drought and periodic food crises.
Recent studies suggest that the frequency of such droughts is closely linked to climate change. Droughts are known to create severe food crises and famines; and over the past 30 years there have been eight serious droughts in the Sahel. Over the past decade, droughts and crop failures have occurred more frequently – in 2000, 2004 and 2009 – due to erratic rainfall and increased desertification. This has resulted in severe hunger and food shortages between 2004 and 2010 in the Sahel – the situation is still ongoing – with Niger and Chad the worst-affected countries.