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OPINION

More Irrigation and Pastoralism Could Transform Africa’s Sahel Region

Makhtar Diop

allafrica.com

October 28, 2013

The Sahel region, a vast arid stretch of land linking six countries in West Africa -- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal -- is home to some of the most productive pastoralist communities in the world. And yet, assailed by a host of climatic, political and development challenges, their pastoralist way of life is under threat.

Here, over centuries, some 16 million pastoralists have perfected the art of survival in the Sahel, raising sheep and livestock in some of the most harsh and unforgiving environments anywhere on the planet.  Meat yields from the Sahel rival those from some of the best ranches in Australia and the United States.  Currently, half of the meat and two-thirds of the milk produced and consumed in the countries of West Africa originates in the Sahel.

However pastoralism is facing multiple threats.  These include rapid population growth, conflict, volatile food prices, animal diseases, and shrinking grazing areas and water resources. Combined, these factors are steadily jeopardizing the survival of the pastoralists of the Sahel.    

Climate change is expected to hit Africa hardest.  It is increasingly likely that scientific warnings that the world could warm by 2°C in the next 20 or 30 years will come true.  In such a case, pastoralism will be imperiled.  The effects on the African continent will be dramatically more devastating under a warming scenario of 4°C.

Desert and aridity define the Sahel, yet its vast water resources are untapped.  In a region where farming is the predominant economic activity, sadly, only 20 percent of the Sahel’s irrigation potential has been developed.  Worse still, one quarter of the area equipped with irrigation lies in a state of disrepair.

Pastoralism matters for Africa’s future particularly in the Sahel.  So does irrigation.  Both affect farming, the dominant industry in the region, which accounts for one-third and more of all economic output in the Sahel. This in turn empowers the women of the Sahel, as women account for the majority of Africa’s farmers.    

Supporting pastoralism with more climate smart-policies; reducing vulnerability to drought, flooding and other disasters; and raising more healthy livestock through timely vaccines, are all necessary to help communities adapt to the ecological harshness of the Sahel. 

Bringing more water to parched lands in the Sahel will not only improve food production but place more food on family dinner tables, allow farmers to  move from subsistence farming into growing and selling greater quantities of  food crops for higher earnings in local and regional markets. Climate-smart agriculture can increase yields, put more money in farmers’ pockets and help protect biodiversity, improve soil fertility, and conserve the environment.

At a time when the global economy is slowly recovering, we want to prime the engines of growth that really matter. 

The World Bank is hosting two major summits in Mauritania and Senegal focused on threats and opportunities for pastoralism and irrigation to thrive in Africa. 

I am confident that in Nouakchott and Dakar, we will mobilize new coalitions of countries, development partners, business leaders, and the communities themselves for a new push to transform agriculture with more domestic, regional and international support for pastoralism and irrigation. 

It can be done.

Makhtar Diop is the World Bank Group’s Vice President for Africa