In the Sahel region of West Africa, decades of scant rainfall and poor farming techniques have left a legacy of creeping desertification. Local people, researchers and human rights activists alike are struggling to cope with the heavy human and environmental toll.
In this feature, Nico Colombant examines the damage and what is being done about it.
Newly arrived desert rodents are one of the biggest problems. These can ravage crops, and also spread diseases through ticks. Borreliosis, for instance — an illness characterised by recurrent fevers — is so similar to malaria that it is frequently misdiagnosed and treated with the wrong medicine.
While some scientists focus on understanding the dynamics of these destructive rodents, others study how to boost the productivity of crops grown in increasingly degraded soil. One idea — inoculating seeds with fungi and bacteria that can improve soil structure — will soon be tested under field conditions.
Desertification also triggers social problems: with fertile soil at a premium, violence has broken out between nomadic herders and farmers. An Oxfam director is now encouraging dialogue between these communities, and also working with the herders to ensure they have enough access to pastures for their animals, which in turn fertilise and revitalise the land.