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Extreme weather set to foil Sahel knowledge

Copyright: David Rose/Panos

Speed read

  • Sahelian farmers are skilled at surviving arid conditions

  • But temperatures and rainfall patterns are becoming more extreme

  • Knowledge and tech transfer can help with crop development

Technology and expertise from outside are needed to support traditional knowledge and help people in Africa’s arid Sahel region cope with climate change, according to researchers.
A side event at COP 21, the UN’s climate change summit in Paris, France, heard that those living in the region have evolved local strategies to deal with extreme weather such as droughts and flooding, but that these will soon be insufficient as conditions become even tougher.

“[Local people] will no longer have the tools in their technical arsenal or the genetic diversity of cultivated species needed to respond. Help must come from outside.”

Benjamin Sultan, French Research Institute for Development


At the event on 1 December, Benjamin Sultan, a climatologist at the French Research Institute for Development, said: “[Local people] will no longer have the tools in their technical arsenal or the genetic diversity of cultivated species needed to respond. Help must come from outside.”
Sultan’s conclusions are based on a mixture of published and unpublished research collected together in a book outlining the region’s uncertain future that was published on 25 November. This shows that Sahelian cultures are excellent at spotting changes in weather patterns, a skill that allows them to rapidly switch between survival strategies — for example changing from higher yielding crop varieties to drought-resistant ones during periods with little rain.
But Sultan’s analysis of climate modelling from UN advisory body the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that temperatures and rainfall patterns will soon evolve beyond anything the region has experienced before.

Map showing Sahel 

The COP 21 conference particularly emphasises civil society’s role in dealing with climate change, as parties discuss the Lima-Paris Action Agenda. This declaration, made at last year’s UN climate summit in Peru, aims to encourage all parts of society, including indigenous people, to move towards climate change adaptation.
For this to work in the Sahel, knowledge and technology transfer is crucial to develop new crop species and to diversify water collection and management techniques, said Sultan.
Another session on the importance of the vast underground aquifers in the Sahel reinforced this reality. As water tables drop through more evaporation and overextraction of water, methods of tapping aquifers that have worked for centuries, such as hand-dug wells, are falling short, meaning crucial water resources are out of reach without modern technology, said Jean Bazié, director-general of Eau Vive, an NGO that runs water projects in the region.
But Bazié warned that steps must be taken to prevent the loss of traditional knowledge, not least because this store of wisdom may once again become useful in the face of uncertain long-term environmental conditions.
In addition, understanding local culture and people’s intimate links to places would help to successfully integrate modern technology into the daily lives of Sahel residents, he said.
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