Crisis in the Sahel: Possible solutions and the consequences of inaction

Potts M, Zulu E, Wehner M, Castillo F, Henderson C. 
2013 Apr

The following report summarizes the OASIS@Berkeley Conference hosted by the University of California, Berkeley and the African Institute for Development Policy on September 21, 2012

Executive Summary

The following report documents how, over the next 30 to 40 years in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, between 100 million and 200 million people are likely to be without sustainable food supplies. This was the conclusion of a multidisciplinary group of experts from Africa and North America, who asked what will happen in the Sahel when new projections of global warming are combined with rapid population growth. The meeting was not the first on the Sahel, but the breadth of expertise in agriculture, climatology, demography, family planning, the status of women, terrorism, and national security was unique and the conceptualizations of the problems unusually clear and powerful.

The Sahel comprises one million square miles of arid and semi-arid land along the edge of the Sahara, stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. In 1950, the region contained 31 million people; today there are more than 100 million, and in 2050, there could be more than 300 million. New projections of climate change prepared for the OASIS meeting foresee a rise of 3°C to 5°C (7°F to 10°F) above today’s already high temperatures by 2050. Scientific projections several decades into the future can never be exact, and the forecasts of population and global warming made for 2050 might come a decade sooner or later, but they will occur. The projections for 2100 are startling, with a population of 600 million in the Sahel and temperatures up to 8°C (13°F) above today’s norms.

It would be totally implausible to sustainably accommodate this scale of growth. Without immediate, large-scale action, death rates from food shortages will rise as crops wither and livestock die and the largest involuntary migration in history could occur. Already today, 12 million to 18 million people in this region are hungry. Early marriage of girls to older men is common in many regions and no progress will be made until the age of marriage is raised and girls are enabled to go to school and make a meaningful contribution to the development of their country. Conflict and terrorism are proliferating, and more failed states are likely.

The strength of the OASIS conference was its goal to create the solutions needed to stave off the worst of the catastrophe facing the region. Building the evidence base to enable decision-makers at a national, regional and global level to invest in this critical change is our immediate purpose. Climate change needs to be addressed through agricultural adaptations and improved water management. Women need to be enabled through family planning to manage their childbearing. The key is to meet the unmet need for family planning in a human rights framework. Investing in girls and young women is critical to creating a successful and peaceful society. The meeting was unanimous that such solutions must be immediate and on a large scale.

The participants left with a commitment to construct a network of experts dedicated to strengthening scientific analysis of the problems facing the region and their solution. Everyone agreed that the cost of inaction — in depleted environment, increased hunger, humanitarian care for refugees, failed states, conflict, housing migrants, and the further spread of terrorism — will be many times that of action to improve agriculture, provide choices on childbearing, and invest in girls and young women.