An African Region Beats Back the Desert, Thanks to Trees
PADMA NAGAPPAN 0SC ON OCTOBER 16, 2015
New research shows that the Sahel has recovered from the epic droughts of the 1970s and ’80s.
The Sahel region in Northern Africa is sandwiched between the Sahara desert in the north and the savanna in the south, stretching across nearly a dozen countries. It is a hot, dry region where it’s hard to grow most crops, so locals depend on subsistence livestock herds, mostly cattle, sheep, and goats.
Overgrazing has long been blamed for creeping desertification of the Sahel, especially in the wake of devastating droughts in the 1970s and ’80s.
Now, research from South Dakota State University blows both claims out of the water, showing that 84 percent of the watersheds in the Sahel have recovered.
“In the past people have had a negative perception of the Sahel, that the pastoralists are misusing and overgrazing the land, but these findings prove that’s not true,” said Niall Hanan, a savanna ecologist with SDSU who has focused on Africa for the past 25 years.
The researchers found that the Sahel region has bounced back from the epic droughts of decades past. Despite a mix of wet and dry years since then, the region has grown green as rainfall has increased. While grasslands have recovered, trees have made an even bigger comeback.
“Trees are the main change we’ve seen over the last 30 years,” he said. “In northern Senegal, for example, tree populations have doubled.”
The research underscores the key role trees play in fighting drought and climate change and influencing weather patterns.