In the Sudano-Sahel region – the band of drylands on the southern edge of the Sahara desert – more than 20 million people support themselves through pastoralism. Scant and unreliable rainfall and poor soils make the land difficult to farm, so for centuries, many people have raised livestock instead, moving their herds periodically to find fresh pastures and allow the land to recover.
It is a hard life, but nomadic and transhumant (seasonally mobile) pastoralism is a resilient livelihood choice in the Sahel, particularly in a changing climate. Since colonial times, the herders’ mobility, combined with the remoteness of many grazing areas, has often led to marginalization. Multiple factors now make pastoral livelihoods more difficult than ever.
Responding to demand for land amid rapid population growth, governments have let farmers take over grazing areas. Certain farmers still let livestock graze on their land for a fee with mutual benefits: pasture and crop residues for the animals, and manure to fertilize the crops. However, the overall amount of land available for grazing keeps shrinking and the farms also disrupt livestock migration routes. When stray cattle roam loose on fields before harvest, they can severely damage crops. As a result, some farmers see herders as a nuisance or even a threat. Meanwhile, many pastoralists see the farms as encroaching on their traditional tribal land.
Violent conflicts between farmers and herders have erupted, linked to more than 15 000 deaths since 2010 in West and Central Africa, more than half of which have occurred since 2018.
In certain places, violent conflicts have erupted, linked to more than 15 000 deaths since 2010 in West and Central Africa, more than half since 2018. Indeed, much of the world’s attention on the Sahel in recent years has focused on those conflicts, though the situation is far more complex than most recognize.
There have been serious failures of governance, including poor land management, corruption and favouritism. Those failures have resulted in severe land degradation. Heavily armed groups – from jihadist insurgents, to local militias supported by governments – have further polarized the population. In Nigeria, herders have been forced to leave some areas due to the presence of Boko Haram, along with armed bandits and cattle rustlers. Climate change adds even more stress to pastoral and farming livelihoods, while the difficult context hinders adaptation.
A cross-boundary challenge
No country can solve these problems on its own. Indeed, international cooperation is essential to addressing them effectively. Herders in the Sahel have historically moved not just within nations, but often across borders. The climate change impacts and land degradation that threaten livelihoods in the region also cut across borders. At the same time, pastoralism, including the cross-border movement and trade of livestock, is not only a vital part of the Sahelian economy, but a prime opportunity to better integrate these countries’ economies for mutual benefit.
African governments already recognize the need to cooperate on adaptation. The Great Green Wall, an extraordinary anti-desertification campaign launched in 2007, is the most prominent joint effort to date. That is urgent and crucial work. The task now is to broaden and deepen collaborative efforts across the region to ensure the resilience of both pastoral and farming livelihoods.
Conditions vary across the Sahel, but it is clear that for many pastoralists, climate change is making life far more difficult. The animals need water, but droughts and poor water management have dried up springs and streams, driving herders south, into areas where farming is prevalent. Rainy seasons are becoming more variable, and there have been some devastating droughts. One of the worst, in 2010, killed more than 4.8 million head of cattle in Niger, about a quarter of the country’s herd, at an economic cost of more than $700 million.
The expansion of farming in traditional pastureland thus has direct implications for the resilience of pastoral livelihoods, as mobility is crucial to herders. With the landscape so fragmented, they are increasingly stuck in smaller areas. This can lead to overgrazing and land degradation and deepen their vulnerability to climate change. Climate change, in turn, is increasing the incidence and spread of new livestock diseases, making some governments more resistant to cross-border movements of animals. For multiple reasons, national borders in the region are hardening.
Regional cooperation to build resilience
As noted, governments and other stakeholders in the Sahel region are already working together to tackle these complex challenges. Along with the Great Green Wall, several smaller initiatives have been launched to better manage and restore shared natural resources, such as the Lake Chad Basin Commission and the Lake Victoria Basin Commission. Some focus explicitly on the needs of herders.
Six Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal – have been working together to strengthen the resilience of pastoralist populations in the region since 2015, with $248 million in support from the World Bank. The Regional Project to Support Pastoralism in the Sahel (PRAPS) builds on the six countries’ 2013 Nouakchott Declaration on Pastoralism, which is aptly subtitled “Mobilizing Jointly an Ambitious Effort to Ensure Pastoralism without Borders”. It targets the most vulnerable herders in particular, aiming to directly benefit more than 2 million people.
Many African countries’ policies and adaptation plans do not yet highlight cross-border collaboration as a key strategy. However, a recent study of perceptions of transboundary climate risks among policymakers found strong agreement that regional coordination must be strengthened, including through links with African Union agencies, activities and frameworks.
The Africa Climate Change Strategy and Agenda 2063 both aim to support joined-up action to advance climate-resilient and sustainable socioeconomic development across the continent. The Africa Adaptation Initiative is bringing countries together to promote coherence in their policies and strategies across the subnational, national, regional and continental levels. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has developed a regional climate strategy, has also adopted policies and plans to protect the free movement of goods and people and support livestock development.
How to build resilience?
Building on several years of research and policy engagement in the region, the Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises (SPARC) programme has recommended five priorities for regional cooperation to build the resilience of pastoralists in the Sahel region:
- strengthening regional early warning systems
- developing public-private partnerships for livestock insurance
- applying transhumance regulations
- transforming and modernizing the livestock sector
- expanding initiatives to harmonize data collection and market monitoring.
Policymakers can also work together to facilitate livestock movements by securing livestock corridors and providing key infrastructure and services along them in close coordination with local stakeholders. Pastoralist passports for nomadic herders, in the vein of the ECOWAS International Transhumance Certificate (CIT) designed in the 2000s, can also be considered in other Sahelian regions.
The realities on the ground are very difficult. No one expects these problems to be solved quickly. International climate finance from multilateral funds, multilateral development banks and bilateral partners alike will be crucial. National and local government reforms will be essential. By combining effective local interventions with strong regional cooperation on shared adaptation needs, the people of the Sahel can emerge more resilient and united.