Desertification in Senegal

Geographically, Senegal marks where the Sahel, the zone of Africa between the Sahara and the lush savanna and jungle of the heartland, meets the Atlantic.  For thousands of years, this location has made Senegal an important transit point.  For migratory birds who hug the coast as they travel south, the lakes and rivers of Senegal are the first breaks from the oppressive climate of the desert.  For traders, Senegal provided access to coastal populations, the fertile plains of Africa, and the trans-Sahara routes.  This location is not without risk, though.

Put simply, the desert is coming.  It creeps endlessly closer as winds sweep over the vast Sahara.  Along the southern edge of the Sahel, 12 million hectares of land are lost each year to desertification (BBC).  As climate change shifts weather patterns, even slightly, the acceleration of this process has deep impacts on people who have lived in the region for thousands of years.  Senegal, like the other countries of the Sahel, has its work cut out for it.

A Window in Time

  • The desert of Mauritania and northern Senegal tells a clear story.  Whether you’re interested in environmental change or signs of human impact, the narrative is obvious.  This is a place of change.
  • Walking along the troughs of towering sand dunes, it’s easy to see the origins of this environment.   Millions of years ago, this area was deep underwater; shells dot the landscape.  Modern scientists can now tell that 7 million years ago, the rainfall and water levels in the area of North Africa fell by more than 50% (Smithsonian).  At the same time, the emergence of the Arabian Peninsula through tectonic shifts changed precipitation patterns permanently.
  • The fact that things are still shifting today is evidence of the constant force that shapes the region – change.  When considered in a context of millions of years, deserts appear to move slowly.  But change happens every day – sand drifts much like snow in the winter, blown with the wind across roads and into once-fertile landscapes.
  • The human legacy in this region adds to the narrative.  In Senegal and Mauritania, escarpments mark natural edges between landscapes.  Often, they exist on the boundary of an ancient riverbed.  In Senegal, many of these escarpments have caves that have, in one way or another, protected residents from the outside.  As has happened around the world, people have used art to capture their lives.  The cave paintings of northern Senegal and southern Mauritania depict an ancient environment.
    • Images on the inside of caves show depictions of animals that can no longer live in the surrounding countryside.  Surrounded by thousands of miles of desert, these caves illustrate explicitly the change that has taken place during the course of human history.  Lions, giraffes, hippos, and antelope can no longer live in the inhospitably dry northern Sahel.
    • In addition to animals, the paintings show rivers and lush jungles that have been replaced by solid-colored dunes and low shrubs.

A Home Regardless

  • Despite the harsh climate and inconsistent rainfall, people have made northern Senegal and the rest of the region their home for millennia.  Nomadic tribes originated here – incredible herders who follow the grasses and seek water by traveling hundreds of miles each year.  Some walk as many as fifty kilometers in a single day along routes that have been active for such people for generations.
  • Opposite to its arid surface, the land of the Sahel sits atop one of the largest aquifers on the planet.  Deep wells provide access to water in places where there is no sign of it.  Although it’s risky, people have made lives in the desert by tirelessly maintaining access to deep water and spending as much as 25% of waking effort collecting, storing, and using the essential resource.
  • Workers also plan ahead in the dry regions of Senegal.  Knowing that it won’t rain a drop from September to May or June, they concentrate efforts on the times of the year when there is rain.  The majority of crops grown in these parts of Senegal store well and grow quickly – peanuts, grains, potatoes.  The margins are razor-thin – when things go right, people can live comfortably here.  But when minor charges disrupt the patterns of things, the delicate balance can collapse.

Senegal is, like the other countries in the Sahel, taking active steps to prevent further degradation.  As foreign bodies estimate that desertification will force as many as 50 million Africans to leave their homes, Senegal is taking action (BBC).

A Great Green Wall

  • More than anything, desertification collapses existing ecosystems.  With enough sand, an increase of a degree or two in average temperature, and changing rainfall, thousands of miles of once-green land is now brown and lifeless.  Herders who used to be able to stay within a few days walk of home are now going weeks and even moths away from home.  Farmers are down to being able to grow only a few crops during a few short months of the year.
  • In response to the collapse of ecosystems, Senegal and other countries have joined together to begin one of the most ambitious environmental efforts in human history.  They’re planting what is known as the Great Green Wall.  The first seed of this ambitious initiative was planted in Senegalese soil.  When the program is done, there will be a 8,000 kilometer band of trees that spans the entire Sahel region.  In some places, the band will be 50 kilometers wide.
  • Although the projects to the build the Great Green Wall is less than 20% completed, the impacts are obvious.  People in northern Senegal are returning to lands that were abandoned just a decade ago.  New crops are appearing in local markets and people are finding reasons to stay and to invest where before they were seeking oppportunities in Europe and other parts of West Africa.


The future of the Sahel and of Senegal’s more arid regions is certainly not guaranteed.  Climate change may well prove too powerful for some areas.  But, as always, people are working to make it.  Senegal is working to make it.  For visitors, this determination is a great way of understanding people and place.  There is perhaps nowhere else in the world quite like Senegal and yet the lessons here are relevant everywhere.  Environmental, economic, and social issues will always be intricately connected.  In Senegal, they serve as a way of understanding history and of grasping the initiatives and people who will shape the future of Africa.

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