2020 has undoubtedly been a year of mass uncertainty and loss. Worsening climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have elucidated the importance of establishing stability and security within our lives. For families living in the Sahel Region of Africa, the added threat of violent conflict makes for a daunting circumstance. However, years of learning to cope with obstacles such as unpredictable weather patterns and infectious diseases have fostered strength and wisdom to persist in the face of unimaginable feats.
The Sahel lies along the Southern edge of the Sahara Desert, stretching across several countries. The loosely defined boundary stretches from Senegal on the Atlantic coast, through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan to Eritrea on the Red Sea coast. Caught between Arabic, Islamic and nomadic cultures of the North, and Indigenous and traditional cultures in the South, the Sahel is characterized by an amalgamation of identities.
Though conflict between non-state armed groups and security forces has been rampant in this region for years, recent developments have shown that violence is on the rise, and as a result, innocent civilians are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. In Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the militant jihadist organization Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), a branch of Al Qaeda, has been escalating violence against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), a local affiliate of the Islamic State militant group. In Northeastern Nigeria, the IS West African Province (ISWAP) (commonly known as Boko Haram) has been ramping up aggression, drawing in Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. In an attempt to keep Islamic terrorism out of France, Emmanuel Macron has sent over 5,000 troops to the Sahel, deploying more troops than investors. It is evident that the region’s economic success is not a top priority for France. In spite of the increase of the French military presence, political violence has expanded, highlighting France’s inability to resolve the security crisis at best, or perpetuation of conflict at worst. Critics of President Macron accuse France of intervening in a paternalistic style and overextending their power. A Senegalese opposition politician, Abdoulaye Bathily, warns against the continuation of the harmful ‘Francafrique’ strategy, which he views as an exertion of unwanted influence over France’s former colonies in Africa. Despite opposition, outside forces continue to intervene, fuelling instability and prompting a mass exodus of villagers who fear for their lives. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warns, “the Sahel is facing one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world – and yet one of the most forgotten.”
For many, evacuating villages is the necessary first step to survive. Civilians who are unable to leave their villages are oftentimes caught in the middle of violence, or are outright targeted by armed groups. In Mali’s Mopti region, armed groups burn people in their own homes, hack them to death with machetes, and brutally drag commuters out of public buses to slaughter them. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), during the 2019-2020 school year, “over 4,000 schools remained closed for 776,000 students because of insecurity alone.” This is nearly a 50% increase in school closures from 2018 to 2019, revealing a massive setback for education in the region. Without the protection of a classroom, children are at a heightened risk of being recruited by armed groups.
Climate Change & COVID-19 in the Sahel: Interview with Georgie Badiel Liberty
To explore the Sahel region beyond a basic report of the violence and displacement, I wanted to understand how individuals’ lives were impacted by the prospects of climate change and COVID-19. I had the pleasure of interviewing Georgie Badiel Liberty, a Burkinabé model and activist who after winning Miss Africa 2004 has used her platform to tackle the inaccessibility of potable water in Burkina Faso. She describes her childhood in Burkina Faso, having to walk three hours at a time to fetch water. She would get drowsy at her desk at school, having to focus in 100 degree classrooms with no ventilation and no access to water to quench her thirst.
Georgie explained that today, many schools in Burkina Faso still lack access to potable water; Georgie hopes to change this. Her foundation, the Georgie Badiel Foundation, builds and restores wells to provide clean water to communities. In general, around 500 women line up to collect water from a single well every day, and each well supplies water to over 1,000 people. After about 6 months, the wells begin to deteriorate from overuse; there are currently over 9,000 broken wells in Burkina Faso. Many of these wells were built by large organizations that do not operate locally, and as a result built wells and left the area without teaching the locals about how to repair them. In contrast, the ethos of Georgie’s community work can be likened to the saying, “Teach a man to fish and you feed a man for a lifetime.” Her foundation trains young women in the basic engineering skills necessary to maintain and restore community wells. Georgie’s team of educators and staff are 100% local, bright engineers in Burkina Faso who are well-equipped to teach and empower women in their communities. Georgie explains that there is an abundance of well-educated young engineers in Africa who cannot find jobs. By providing opportunities for engineers to extend their knowledge to Burkinabé women, Georgie is investing in both Burkinabé women as agents in their communities, and in local engineers working within a competitive job market.
I asked Georgie about the recent flooding in Burkina Faso, and the impact of the flooding on Burkinabé families and the Georgie Badiel Foundation’s progress. Georgie explained that the September floods put a grave strain on the food and water supply in the region. Climate change is the likely culprit, and will certainly exacerbate present resource shortages. Temperatures in the Sahel are expected to rise 1.5 times faster than the global average. Simultaneously, rainy seasons in the region are becoming shorter, less predictable, and more intense. This means that when it does rain, there is a greater risk of flooding. As of September 18, 2020, 500 tons of food washed away, and several hectares of fields were flooded. In addition, 112 people were injured, and 12,378 houses were destroyed. The Minister in charge of humanitarian action, Hélène Marie Laurence Ilboudo, announced on September 8th 2020 that the flood displaced an estimated 1,034,609 people within the country, 112,420 of whom are distributed in households and several who have been provided temporary residence in 257 communes.
As a result of these recent extreme weather patterns — in particular storm surges — one of the first water fountains with solar power that Georgie’s team had built completely collapsed. They had to go back and rebuild the entire structure. Georgie emphasizes that the greatest impact of climate change in Burkina Faso is famine. Georgie remembers getting a call from her grandmother and the Mayor in 2018 regarding the famine occurring due to intense droughts. Georgie’s family, who farm for a living, could no longer put out produce in the markets at the same capacity. Many families could only afford to feed their children twice a week. Food insecurity is still rampant in Burkina Faso to this day. Chris Nikoi, WFP Regional Director for West Africa states that “dreadful violence and conflict” in parts of northern Burkina Faso have left over 10,000 people “one step short of famine.”
Across the Sahel region, farmers have had to adapt to new circumstances not just due to climate-change induced weather patterns, but also due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Price fluctuations and trade disruptions have hurt small-scale farmers. In Mali, a top cotton producing country, the plummeting price of cotton has left farmers with reduced income. Farmers are increasingly unable to buy the fertilizers needed to cultivate crops like corn and millet. Border closures and travel restrictions have also negatively impacted nomadic pastoralist communities that depend on cross-border mobility to find pastures for their cattle. In Burkina Faso, export flows have declined. Pastoralists in Niger face disruptions in livestock prices and terms of trade.
Healthcare facilities across the Sahel have also struggled to keep up with the demands of the pandemics. In Mali, around 20 percent of health centres have been partially damaged or destroyed by violent military confrontations. In Burkina Faso, 14 percent of health centres have either been closed or continue to function at limited capacity.
In response to the pandemic, Georgie has spoken with the Minister of Health to address concerns in Burkina Faso. Georgie describes how small private clinics have adopted a strategy of re-directing patients to specific hospitals for treatment. Small clinics in Burkina Faso recognize that they are vulnerable to exposure of COVID-19 in the clinic, due to limited staff sizes and a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). As such, they have been redirecting patients to the Tengandogo hospital, designated only for coronavirus patients. Directing all COVID-19 patients to one facility also protects patients without COVID-19 from exposure.
Georgie has set up a COVID-19 awareness campaign, which involves educating the public about the spread of the virus. This includes teaching the public the importance of hand-washing and mask-wearing to prevent the spread of the virus. Many households do not have access to the Internet in their homes, which means they cannot access information about COVID-19 online. As a result, Georgie’s campaign has been extremely successful in reaching people who might not otherwise have the information necessary to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. Georgie remarked that “Americans have a lot to learn from Africans when it comes to the spread of disease.” Given that international organizations are constantly running disease campaigns in Africa, people are always alert and aware of basic sanitary measures to protect themselves in case of an outbreak. They are quick to recognize the severity of precautions and do not hesitate to adjust to new measures. Years of dealing with malaria and other infectious diseases have given the Burkinabé the wisdom to take the disease seriously and adapt to the necessary precautions. As Georgie sums up, “Africans have that knowledge” and intuition, “they are used to this kind of habit” in ways that we can all learn from.
The methods employed by Burkina Faso to cope with new prospects of climate change and COVID-19 are reflective of the Sahel region as a whole. Although conflict and displacement remain, the strength of citizens to persevere in the face of danger and work with organizations like the Georgie Badiel Foundation restore a glimmer of hope for their collective future.
Featured image by Beate Semarud/NRC.