COMMENTARY: World must wake up to the coming crisis in the Sahel

Posted: 23 January 2012

Author: Malcolm Potts

If forecasters could draw isobars outlining human suffering, then the high pressure zone of human pain would surely be in the failed, and failing states, along the Sahel, and across to Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, says Professor Malcolm Potts. This powerful Commentary is a wake-up call for new strategies to avert an environmentally-induced human catastrophe. 

Millet, Niger
Woman shows varieties of millet grown in Niger, including pearl millet, which is the staple food for 50 million people living in the Sahel. It is extremely resistant to drought and well adapted to poor soils and remains the only crop that truly corresponds to the environmental conditions and traditional diet. Photo © Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD) / Claire Costis

Along the edge of the Sahara desert, rapid population growth, global warming, poor governance and a hideous mistreatment of women are combining in a perfect storm which could lead to unprecedented levels of environmental stress, starvation, escalating conflict and massive waves of migration.

The potential for human misery is colossal. The need to act is pressing. The scale of problems in the Sahel goes beyond the usual response to a potential humanitarian disaster. New international strategies need to be built about food security, family planning, gender equity and governance that have major geopolitical implications for the rest of the twenty-first century.

Our brains weren’t evolved to deal with millions, let alone billions. We are easily numbed by numbers. Huge but slowly moving catastrophes may be the most difficult of all to bring to public attention, but these mega-catastrophes, taking decades to fully build, are ultimately the most important.

My metric for a massive catastrophe is the Second World War. I was a child during that conflict that killed 26 to 34 million people.

As an adult, my professional life has given me a ringside seat on what happens when we fail to act decisively as soon as a new problem arises. In the early 1980s I headed a large nonprofit institution called Family Health International. I predicted that a new, lethal, sexually transmitted disease called AIDS could kill a lot of people. AIDS has now killed over 30 million people, and 34 million still carry this lethal, incurable virus.

When the disease was first identified, few listened, but I was able to scrabble together enough private money to initiate the first sex worker education in Africa. This led to our winning the first USAID contract to slow AIDS in Africa - but it was too small and too late.

In the next 30 years, unless strong action is taken, I believe that the catastrophe now unfolding in the Sahel has the potential to kill as many as – or perhaps many more than - AIDS has killed in the past 30 years. There is compelling evidence that in the Sahel rapid population growth and climate change are combining to threaten many tens of millions of people. Part of this potential mega-disaster could be averted by voluntary family planning and investing in the wellbeing of girls and young women, but we must learn from AIDS and act boldly, decisively, and with urgency.

Interacting problems

The crisis in the Sahel involves multiple countries and many interlocking factors, but the key problems are simple and obvious.

The first is the changing climate. Today’s extremes of drought could become averages by 2050. And, given the institutional and socio-economic conditions in the region, such changes are likely to result in highly negative impacts on local communities.

The second problem relates to natural resources. Overgrazing, poor agricultural practices, lack of infrastructure and uneven governance could result in inefficient use of natural resources including soil, water and ecosystem-based services. Soil erosion and destruction of trees for firewood are about to collide with climate change turning serious problems into a catastrophe.

Then there is the question of human capital: only one in 1000 women completes secondary education in Niger.

Finally there is runaway population growth. In the Sahel, where the average age of marriage can be as low as 14 and women average six or seven children, the population is growing more rapidly than the food supply or the economy. The population of the Sahel could jump from just over 100 million today to between 250 and 300 million by 2050.

Niger population projection
The graph shows the impact on the final population of a country of the date when it reaches an average of two children. Delay in raising the age of marriage and in instituting family planning will be as lethal in a country like Niger, as was the delay in instituting HIV prevention in Africa in the 1980s. Click on image to enlarge.

Current projections take the population of Niger from 16 million today to almost 60 million or possibly even higher in 2050. The UN population projections do not allow for externalities, such as starvation or conflict, but I think it is implausible that Niger will reach the 139 million that demographic projections suggest is possible by 2100 without death rates rising.

Burkina Faso is projected to go from 16 to almost 50 million people by 2050, Chad from 11 to almost 30 million. Mali is projected to more than double from 15 to 35 million and Somalia from under 10 to over 20 million.

Until recently, the UN’s World Population Prospects adopted the convention that most countries will drift in some magical way towards 2.05 children per women by 2050, and that least developed countries would fall to 2.41. However, there is absolutely no evidence to support this assumption in the high fertility countries.

Earlier this year the UN had the good sense to revise their estimates accepting that birth rates in the high fertility countries will not reach replacement level fertility any time soon. The results are startling. Commentators like to highlight the median 10.1 billion projections for 2100, but the director of the UN Demographic Division explains the median variant is no more likely than any other projection.

Whether you take the highest (15.8 billion) projection or the lowest (6.2 projection) for the planet’s human population at the century’s end, these few high fertility countries (averaging from 4 to over 7 children per woman) with a total population of 1.2 billion today, are projected to be the largest population block in the world by 2100.

Unless investments are made today in education, especially for girls, and in family planning in these high fertility regions then the world will become even more divided than it is today between rich and poor and between stable democratic nations and failed states. The Sahel presents the most immediate, and also the most easy to document, set of problems.

Forgotten people

Map of Sahel
Map of Sahel

In Arabic, Sahel means ‘shore. ’ It is the 2000-mile-long strip of hot, dusty earth fringing the southern border of the Sahara desert, from Senegal to Eritrea. It is an ecological definition, not a political boundary. At least 50 million of the world’s most forgotten people doggedly attempt to survive in harsh conditions.

From October to May there is no rain and temperatures can exceed 120° Fahrenheit (49° C). Dust storms of Biblical proportions blanket huge areas of the Sahel and Northern Nigeria. Scientists, studying lake deposits have shown that even before global warming the region was subject to prolonged droughts every few tens of years.

Climate change will make a bad situation worse. Today’s extreme temperatures are likely to be the norm in 2050. Possibly the total rainfall will increase but it will arrive in new extremes: droughts that used to occur every 10 years are already happening every five and they will be interspersed with torrential downpours leading to flash floods that wash away homes and crops.

Global warming is almost entirely the product of lavish consumption in the North, but it is the poorest two billion people living on $2.00 a day or less – who incidentally contribute only 5 percent of the annual global production of greenhouse gases – who will suffer most.

Already agricultural output cannot keep pace with population growth. In words which are unusually direct, the UN Environment Programme sees the Sahel as ”heading towards an environmental disaster” and feeding tens of millions of people as “mission impossible.”

In Niger, 44 percent of children are stunted. For the malnourished children who don’t die, there is a life-long penalty in stunted growth and inhibited brain development.

The minimal educational system, along with the abysmal status of women, makes non-agricultural employment virtually impossible. Few girls enter secondary school and virtually none complete it. The schools that do exist are crumbling.

Worse to come

Drought in the Sahel. Women and children always suffer most.

In 2011 we saw the BBC broadcast the first pictures of refugee camps in Kenya. The third largest city in Kenya, after Nairobi and Mombasa is now a refugee camp in the far north of the country. Now that camp built for 90,000 houses 400,000 refugees. Some 1,500 additional women and children, fleeing from drought in Somalia and Ethiopia, arrive every day. It is always the children and women who suffer most

The worst drought in 60 years is hitting the Horn of Africa; 13 million people are already hungry. Earlier this month the New York Times reported “750,000 could die in the next six months unless aid efforts were scaled up”. Probably this time efforts will be scaled up – but what we see today is a harbinger of worse to come.

The first step in meeting this situation is to recognize the nature and the scale of the problem and focus on outcomes not process. To slow rapid population growth we must make family planning easy to obtain.

When I started work in AIDS in the early 1980s there was much we didn’t understand about the disease. In the case of family planning we have half a century of robust evidence of what works.

Technical innovations attract donors such as Gates, but to save tens of millions of lives we need to bring to scale technologies we have known about for decades. We must build human rather than physical infrastructure.

We must meet the unmet need for family planning. Even failed states have markets than can be tapped into. We must knock down uninformed medical barriers to family planning. We must recognize how common misinformation is leading women to believe family planning is dangerous.

I saw evidence of this in Cambodia after the fall of Pol Pot, when refugee camps were springing up along the Thai border. It was a time when neither UNICEF nor Doctors Without Borders were supplying contraception in the camps. But when this was done, by another NGO, use of contraceptives jumped from zero to 52 percent of married women in one month.

Things are changing and humanitarian organizations are offering contraception to refugees and trying to control violence against women. Some will offer pregnant raped women an abortion but there is still a long way to go.

Child marriage

Child marriage, Sahel
In Niger, where the average age of marriage is under 16, one in five women has or more children.

Something must also be done about child marriage. High fertility countries will not slow population growth rate until the average age of the first birth is raised. Demographers calculate that increasing the age of marriage by five years reduces population growth by 15 to 20 percent.

A girl who has two children by the time she is 20 rarely has the opportunity to learn how to manage her childbearing later in life. In Niger, where the average age of marriage is under 16, one in five women has or more children.

Across the globe, 25,000 under-age girls are married off to older men every day. Most child brides either never go to school, or drop out when they marry. Compared with mature women, these girls are twice as likely to be beaten by their husbands and five times as likely to die in childbirth.

Policy makers want simple solutions, but the high fertility countries suffer from many interacting problems. Poor soils and unpredictable weather are outside human control. Colonial exploitation in the past cannot be undone. We don't know how to ameliorate corruption in contemporary governments. Subsidies to American farmers depress African markets unfairly, but they are unlikely to change soon.

Critical factor

Population is only one among these many factors, but it is a critical one. Unless rapid population growth is slowed, then the other problems and injustices become impossible to overcome. Above all, access to family planning is the first essential step towards women’s autonomy.

Eliminating forced marriage for young girls and raising the age of the first birth will be difficult, but our work in Africa shows it is possible. For example, in a project in a Hausa-speaking, polygamous society on the border with Niger, where the average aged of marriage is 14.5, we found that a small educational grant of $196, spread over six years, had resulted in between 82 and 92 percent of girls remaining in school. This really is a light at the end of a long dark tunnel.

The goal of averting the catastrophe I have described will require billions of dollars. This will come primarily from the World Bank, regional development banks and other traditional donors. We need to apply these funds to pilot projects, such as the success keeping girls in school, on a nation-wide scale. We may need careful, random control trials to show that cash transfers work.

A world in the second half of this century where the largest single block of the global population is poor and sometimes destitute; hungry and sometimes starving: uneducated, unemployed and often radicalized: and where tens of millions of women are treated in loathsome ways, is indeed, a global problem and it needs a global understanding and a global response.  

Malcolm Potts is a Cambridge trained obstetrician and reproductive scientist. He is the first holder of the Fred H. Bixby endowed chair in Population and Family Planning at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health and co-director of the Berkeley International Group (BIG).

See also: Niger struggles to feed itself (The Guardian 24 January)