Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Intense population pressure, large-scale climatic change, and poor land management not only brought considerable hardship to residents of the Sahel region of northern Africa but also extended the size of the Sahara Desert and ruined the economies of sixteen countries, causing widespread famine and emigration.

Summary of Event

Between 1968 and 1973, the Sahel region suffered a drought that led to the expansion of the Sahara Desert. The rate of expansion—more than 20 million hectares each year—was extraordinary, as it transformed the once-green southern savanna into desert. Though the drought was temporary, its ecological and economic effects on the sixteen countries of the Sahel have been profound and lasting. Droughts Sahara Desert [kw]Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert (1968-1973) [kw]Sahara Desert, Drought Extends the Reach of the (1968-1973) Droughts Sahara Desert [g]Africa;1968-1973: Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert[09610] [g]North Africa;1968-1973: Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert[09610] [c]Disasters;1968-1973: Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert[09610] [c]Environmental issues;1968-1973: Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert[09610] [c]Geography;1968-1973: Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert[09610] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;1968-1973: Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert[09610] Lamizana, Sangoulé Senghor, Léopold

The Sahel Sahel region, Africa (derived from the Arabic sahil, meaning “a shore”) is a zone in sub-Saharan Africa where the yearly precipitation is low and the evaporation intense. Some climatologists identify the region by a range of yearly precipitation from 100 millimeters (3.9 inches) in the north to 600 millimeters (23.5 inches) in the south, but most believe that the ratio between precipitation and potential evapotranspiration (the amount of water that could evaporate from a plant in a given climate) is a far better indicator to sort areas into deserts or semideserts. In the Sahel, most of the precipitation falls in the summer (June to September), when the temperature is the highest; plants therefore require more water to remain alive and well.

The Sahel is by this latter definition a semidesert. It would be erroneous, however, to believe that the climatic and social catastrophes that affected the region between 1968 and 1973 were solely the products of drought unbalancing a tenuous equilibrium between plant life and the environment. During the twentieth century, droughts affected the area several times (1910-1916, possibly 1912-1920, 1940 or 1944-1948, 1968-1973, 1980-1984), but none had the same devastating effects of the 1968-1973 drought. The cumulative effects of the droughts of the century have changed the patterns of human habitation and resource exploitation.

The Sahel is divided into sixteen independent states. Most of these countries were colonized by European nations during the nineteenth century. One of the benefits of this colonization was the improvement of the health of indigenous populations through better medical care, immunization campaigns, and steady food production, leading to a decrease in the death rates while the birthrates remained steady and high. The consequence was a high population increase of about 3 percent per year. At such a rate, a population can double every twenty-three years. With such a large number of hungry people, the region saw increased migrations northward, with populations expanding more and more into the sparsely populated Sahel.

Initially, it appeared that the area could absorb the migrating population. The weather during the first seven years of the 1960’s was wetter than normal, and the food produced was adequate for the growing population. However, in 1968, the precipitation level fell as much as 40 percent, and the drought began. Benin, Burkina-Faso (Upper Volta), the Cape Verde Islands, Gambia, the Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan, Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal suffered immensely.





Traditionally, the migrant populations were herders or farmers, or both. The herders were transhumant; that is, they moved their cattle north during the summer to benefit from the short rainy season and back south during the rest of the year. After the drought began, herds of goats, sheep, camels, and cows overgrazed their pastures, devouring every blade of grass and killing the vegetation. The denuded pastures could not anchor the soil, leading to massive soil erosion. Stronger winds began eroding the topsoil and moving sand dunes at a speed never before observed. The farmers of the region employed traditional agricultural practices in which soil fertility was protected by allowing fields to lie fallow (unused) for several years before replanting. This extensive (rather than intensive) land-use system was compromised when the growing population, and the effects of the drought, forced farmers to continue using their lands season after season, which led to a significant decline in fertility and food production.

The people of the Sahel suffered first from lack of food Hunger;Sahel drought Famine;Sahel region . Images of emaciated people flooded the media. The economies of the countries of the region suffered a staggering decrease in food production, estimated at more than 600,000 tons of grain crops per year, or a 15 percent loss each year of the drought. The sustained drought (and, because of it, the digging of new wells that lowered the water table), the increase in the number of animals overgrazing the remaining pastures, and the exhaustion of overworked agricultural fields combined to create a growing wasteland that was less and less capable of sustaining human populations.

This process of destroying an existing ecosystem and replacing it with a drier, more barren landscape is called desertification Desertification . Although there are more than one hundred different definitions of desertification, the signs are consistent. Physically, the signs include disappearance of some plants and their replacement with species better adapted to drought, as well as topsoil depletion. Socially, the signs include malnutrition and famine. Desertification in northern Africa from 1968 to 1973 progressed from north to south, expanding into the Sahel at a rate of more than 20 million hectares per year.

The Sahara Desert, as seen from space.


The human disaster that the drought and consequent desertification precipitated was not ignored by the world community. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Economic Community, among other organizations, sent relief supplies to the area. However, local governments recognized that the problem could not be resolved through short-term means. General Sangoulé Lamizana, president of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and Léopold Senghor, president of Senegal, realized that local solutions to a regional problem could not possibly be effective. They worked tirelessly to mobilize the nations of the area to fight the effects of desertification. In 1973, they were instrumental in founding the Comité Permanent Inter-états de Lutte Contre la Sécheresse du Sahel (Inter-States Committee to Fight Drought in the Sahel Inter-States Committee to Fight Drought in the Sahel[Interstates Committee to Fight Drought in the Sahel] ), or CILSS.

With the group’s first president, Lamizana, the nine affected nations of Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, Capo Verde, and Upper Volta organized efforts to resolve the ecological and economic problems that threatened their region. The CILSS proved to be useful both for the analysis of the problem and for implementing potential solutions; it sought to improve farming practices to reduce soil loss, control irrigation, introduce plant crops better adapted to the semiarid environment, and reduce population pressure on an always fragile ecosystem.


The severe drought of 1968-1973 brought desertification to an extremely fragile environment. The immediate consequences of the desertification pushed the countries affected into an economic crisis when agricultural production could not meet the needs of a growing population. Insufficient food production led to social tensions that people thought they could resolve by migrating, but they chose to move to already crowded cities in the hope of finding work, and the cities could not offer them work.

The migrants who sought new lands for agricultural or pastoral pursuits in the Sahel brought with them the ancestral farming practices that led them to migrate in the first place. Their techniques were well adapted to a much rainier environment. The migrants depended too much on irrigation that would leach the nutrients from the fragile soil and lower water tables precipitously in periods of drought. Fallowing and crop rotations that had been at the basis of their traditional farming techniques proved to be impossible in the light of the enormous new population pressures. A transhumant form of pastoralism proved unsound as well after overgrazing caused extensive erosion and loss of viable pasture land.

Lessons were learned from the 1968-1973 drought. The process of desertification is now better understood. It remains to be seen, however, if the countries of the region can revise their systems of exploiting and maintaining the fragile ecosystem of the Sahel and still produce a sustainable economy in which massive disaster, both human and environmental, is avoided. Droughts Sahara Desert

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asmerom, Haile K. “Bureaucracy and Environmental Policy in the Sahel Region of Africa: Strategies for Arresting the March of Desertification.” In Environmental Policy and Developing Nations, edited by Stuart S. Nagel. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002. The politics, economics, and bureaucratic workings of environmental policy in developing nations and regions of the world. This chapter on the Sahel focuses on the region’s desertification and the political responses to the disaster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fries, Jöran. The Fight Against Desertification in the Sahel. Uppsala: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, International Rural Development Centre, 1996. A brief work that documents the history of desertification in the Sahel region of northern Africa. Includes maps and color illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katyal, J. C., and P. L. G. Vlek. Desertification: Concept, Causes, and Amelioration. ZEF Discussion Papers on Development Policy 33. Bonn: Center for Development Research, University of Bonn, Germany, 2000. Elaborates on the concept of desertification, discusses its causes, and suggest ways to improve the situations of the countries affected by it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rain, David. Eaters of the Dry Season: Circular Labor Migration in the West African Sahel. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. The Sahel region has had to adapt to its changing environment. This work explores the dynamics of the population that lives in the Sahel, from the seasonal migrants to the farmers and herders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reynolds, J. F., and D. M. Stafford Smith, eds. Global Desertification: Do Humans Cause Deserts? Berlin: Dahlem University Press, 2002. Examines the causes of global desertification, countering the common notion that desertification may be triggered by humans mismanaging fragile environments.

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