Curing the Sahara blues

Let’s talk about the role Western institutions can play in achieving climate justice in the Sahel.

Tanezrouft Basin. Image credit European Space Agency via Flickr CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Tinariwen, a Tuareg desert blues band that has gained international acclaim over the last few decades, titled one of its albums Aman Iman, or “water is life” in the Tuareg language Tamashek. They chose the title with good reason: water is essential for survival in the arid Sahara and in the Sahel region immediately south of the Sahara. As climate change intensifies and water supplies dry up, this truth will be underscored in dramatic fashion.

Global warming is a major threat to the African continent, imperiling the lives and livelihoods of millions. Forty-six of 54 African countries are threatened by desertification. The most recent International Panel on Climate Change report and other IPCC meta-analyses confirm that, for the rest of the 21st century, the Sahara will endure soaring temperatures, heat extremes, and decreases in precipitation, while the Sahel will experience temperature increases coupled with intense monsoon rains in the central and eastern Sahel, flooding, and greater soil moisture levels. Chaotic climate patterns and heat waves will wreak havoc on people already struggling to make ends meet. Crop yields will be devastated, and droughts will cause food insecurity. The Sahel will be one of the regions with the highest number of people impacted by poverty caused by climate change.

In recent decades, US involvement in the Sahel and Africa more generally has largely been restricted to spending nearly $2 billion a year on military operations and sending thousands of American soldiers to Mali, Niger, Chad, and countries in the Horn of Africa with armed Islamist presences. The US military has made feeble efforts to finance development projects, but these have largely withered on the vine. In 2020, US aid to Africa through USAID and the State Department was $8.5 billion—not insubstantial, but a pittance compared to the overall federal budget.

The United States and former colonial powers in the global North, especially France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, owe countries in Africa a tremendous debt for centuries of slavery, economic exploitation, and political domination. Their imperialism triggered a vicious cycle of underdevelopment whose legacy stretches to the present and whose cost, although impossible to calculate exactly, runs into the tens of trillions. Despite decolonization and African countries’ ostensible liberation from external political hegemony, Western corporate interests continue exploiting natural resources with near impunity. The West owes Africa and the rest of the global South another gigantic debt for its grotesquely disproportionate greenhouse gas emissions: the US, Canada, and Western Europe are responsible for nearly 50% of total cumulative worldwide emissions since 1750.

On February 5, 2021, President Biden addressed the African Union in an effort to reset US–Africa relations, declaring, “The United States stands ready now to be your partner in solidarity, support and mutual respect.” His campaign website’s climate plan promised that the Biden administration would “fully integrate climate change” into American “foreign policy and national security strategies.” USAID’s current commitments aren’t insubstantial, but they are far from enough. If the Biden administration is serious about playing a constructive role in Africa, and if it is genuinely interested in achieving global climate justice, then it should put its money where its mouth is and—without falling prey to a Western savior mentality—finance a Green New Deal that will promote climate change adaptation and resilience in Africa.

Climate scientists have identified a raft of concrete policies that could reverse desertification and mitigate climate change. These policies range from improved agricultural techniques like drip irrigation to investment in clean energy technologies. They also include investment in meteorological and climatic observation infrastructure to provide an early warning system for drought, heat waves, monsoons, and other severe weather events; the introduction of salinity-tolerant plants that fight soil erosion and serve as windbreaks; investment in healthcare infrastructure to combat malaria and dengue fever, which will have a greater range due to climate change; and funding for clean water and desalination programs. One ambitious program that African governments have already begun—the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel, an attempt to build a 15-kilometer-wide wall of greenery along a 7,775-kilometer route from Senegal to Eritrea—“will be challenging without significant additional funding,” according to IPCC scientists.

The United States is well situated to help. Universities like Cornell and the University of Illinois have world-class agricultural science programs. The US could share the fruits of this expertise by expanding exchanges that send agronomists abroad to advise on conservation and plant selection and cultivation. As the richest country on the planet, the US can easily supply the money for the policy program that IPCC scientists recommend. And as the world’s biggest polluter by cumulative emissions, the US has an obligation to do so. If the US makes funding climate mitigation and adaptation programs a priority in its international aid, then perhaps the Sahel can find the silver lining in the storm clouds on the horizon.

Further Reading