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Desertification in the Sahel and USA Assignment

What is desertification? – Desertification tends to generally be blamed on a general overuse of arid land, which degrades it to the extent that it is either entirely uncultivable or nearly so. USGS describe it as ‘The degradation of formerly productive land’. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) defines desertification as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities”

In the SAHEL – is a narrow belt of semi arid land which lies immediately to the South of the Sahara Desert and extends across the north of Africa. The Sahel, or Sahelian Zone, lies south of the Sahara Desert in North Africa. This dry savannah environment is particularly prone to devastating drought years. Typically, several years of abnormally low rainfall alternate with several successive years of average or higher-than-average rainfall. But since the late 1960s, the Sahel has endured an extensive and severe drought.

According to a report by the US agency Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS), the climatic zone of the Sahel – between the Sahara desert and the moist Sudan savannahs of Africa – has been dropping further into desertification over the last century. It only receives between four and eight inches of rainfall a year (100m and 200m), which is slowly decreasing. The rainfall that it does receive falls mostly between the months of June and September.

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Desertification tends to generally be blamed on a general overuse of arid land, which degrades it to the extent that it is either entirely uncultivable or nearly so. This overuse can come from a variety of causes, each integrally tied to human relationship to the environment: overgrazing, by which pastoralists, in raising animals for their own use and for external markets, allow too many animals to graze on a certain plot of land; over cultivation, whereby farmers sap soil nutrients too quickly and make the land sterile for future use; deforestation, in which too few trees remain after use as firewood or clearing of agricultural fields, or due to animal use of land to serve as wind blocks or as a barrier to soil erosion.

Overgrazing is cited as a primary cause of desertification as arid areas at risk lose enough plant life that processes of wind and soil erosion can sweep away large amounts of soil, limiting future use of the land or, in more extreme cases, making future use impossible. Animal populations that are far beyond carrying capacity will result in a progressive reduction in vegetation and increased wind erosion, trampling, sealing, an increase in run off, higher water tables and salinity which all are processes which encourage the desertification process.

Vegetation is lost both in the grazing itself and in being trampled by large numbers of livestock. The result is that overgrazed lands lose their potential to sustain future livestock and in losing vegetation, become increasingly more vulnerable to erosion that will erode the topsoil and prevent the regrowth of this vegetation.

The rapid increase in the population of the third world has been blamed for an increase in desertification. This has put pressure on land needed for cultivation which has placed land in danger, as there has been an increase in the number of animals grazing on each hectare of land plus the increase for the need of firewood. The unstable climate of the Sahel makes it difficult for the Sahel countries to support larger populations. Ethiopia has the largest population with 57.2 million and is the largest in population by far.

The next highest population is Sudan with only 28.9 million people. After these two countries, the populations of the Somalia, Mail, and Niger are all nine and a half million, with Chad at the bottom with only 6.5 million. Populations in this area are growing rapidly though, with some of the highest rates of natural increase in the world, many of them above the 3.0 mark. This view however counteracts Boserup’s ideal that an increased population will result in different techniques of land utilisation, rather than a growth in population will result in an endless cycle of famine and that exceeding that limit will inevitably result in land degradation.

Explain the impact this has had on People, the Environment and the Economy

With more than 58 percent of its land desert and another 30% threatened by the continued encroachment of the Sahel, the countries affected such as Nicaragua and Niger have suffered tremendously since the devastating droughts hitting periodically since the 1970s. The Sahel has suffered the effects of at least four major droughts over the course of the 20th century, namely the droughts of

* 1914-1918

* 1942-47

* 1968-73

* 1983-85

Thousands died from starvation in the wake of these droughts. The most recent drought of 1968-73 was responsible for more than 250,000 human fatalities throughout the Sahel

“These painful events opened the public’s eyes to the disastrous consequences of the phenomenon of desertification,” FEWS reported.

Firstly, this would have had an enormous social impact. This would of brought enormous levels of stress and even depression to not only the immediate families of those involved but also the wider community who were experiencing a mass bereavement. This loss in social esteem would have decreased the motivation of others to live and could have indirectly encouraged more deaths.

In addition, the famine would of killed children’s parents leaving a high number of orphans needing to be cared for by other family members such as grand parents or aunts and uncles. This would have created more pressure within the family unit to provide food for extra mouths leaving less for everyone in the homestead. In addition, due to the high amount of death, people who deal with death arrangements who have been highly over stretched and many would have to dispose of the bodies themselves. If this was not done properly, it could affect water supplies and so greatly increasing the risk of water borne diseases such as cholera.

Monitoring activities by FEWS personnel in five Sahelian countries had shown

“In the number of forest species throughout the area between Mauritania and Chad over the period from 1960 to the year 2000. The lower rainfall had triggered a “25 percent reduction in tree density for trees over 3 meters in height throughout northern Senegal between 1954 and 1989.”

This would have huge environmental implications. A decrease in bio diversity can only have a detrimental impact to a countries eco system and putting extra pressure on other plant species to provide for herbivores. Due to a reduction in flora many animals would starve.

In Beledugu, Mali, wild fruits, nuts and leaves had accounted for over 60 percent of the food intake by households during the height of the 1988 pre-harvest lean period (May to October), a study showed. “Unfortunately, ten or so years later, most species which, at one time, had been used as a food source are disappearing from village lands in a trend which has become irreversible for want of proper land use planning.” This of course would have huge impacts of an environmental, social and economic nature.

Environmentally, due to the severe food shortage people would get food anyway possible. Any sort of plant, root or seed would be consumed and therefore many species could be wiped out from an entirely as this type of ‘find and feed’ is not sustainable. Economically, those with food would not be able to sell or trade it, as people had nothing to sell or buy with. Socially, many would have poor diets and many children, the elderly, vulnerable groups and pregnant women would die from starvation or diseases contracted by having a low immune system.

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