Northern Mali's population is fast dwindling as people flee desertification, drought and armed conflict only to end up in places where they face increased competition for resources.

Desertification, alongside a continual interethnic conflict and terrorism, remain the fundamental threats to peace, security and social stability in Mali. This West African nation of 20 million people lies predominantly in the Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert.

Though the problem affects the whole country, the problem is felt most acutely in the northern regions, an area that covers 827 000 square kilometres or approximately 66 percent of the country. Northern Mali’s main cities include Gao and Timbuktu, which are located along the Niger River.

Small towns with smaller populations include Niafounke, Dire, Gourdam, Bourem and Ansongo. Three hundred kilometres away from Gao, there are two similar towns: Kidal in the northeast and Menaka in the east. 

The Kidal region, of which the city of Kidal is the provincial capital, is currently controlled by the Tuareg rebels of the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), who want to break away from Mali to create an independent state called Azawad.

Northern Mali’s population continues to shrink as people continue to flee armed conflict, desertification and drought, which appear to have paralysed the region’s economy including the once-prosperous tourism sector.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) defines desertification as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities.”

Chatham House Africa consultant Paul Melly acknowledges the link between desertification and land degradation and explains: “Clearly the two are sometimes connected, but not always.

Much depends on the context: in the Sahel, where the Sahara is already close, the degradation of land and loss of soil cover or fertility or vegetation can lead to desertification.”

However, he said there might be other landscapes in other parts of the world where the consequences could be different.

“Clearly if moisture, vegetation cover and fertility are lost, the land cannot support human and animal life to the extent that it may have done before, and that erodes economic opportunity and threatens the viability of communities,” Melly told TRT World.

Water crisis

Apart from generating land degradation that made populations powerless to grow crops to feed their families, especially in northern regions, desertification and drought seem to have created a severe water crisis in these dry areas located in the heart of the rapidly expanding Sahara Desert.

In a region where sheep, goats, donkeys, camels and cows are a man’s best friend and are almost sacred, cattle and livestock remain “a depository for savings, a reserve for contingencies, a self-reproducing asset, a source of current income, and a source of energy,” as Mortimore and Adams put it in 2001.

And these sources of income and energy need plenty of water, food and peace to survive, the same as their masters.

Travelers driving from Niamey, Niger, line up to be searched at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013.
Travelers driving from Niamey, Niger, line up to be searched at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (AP)

In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognised the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. But this remains an empty slogan in northern Mali, where water had run dry, the land has become useless, and armed conflict lingers.

As a result, thousands of northern Malians have fled their homes, running away from both armed conflict and harsh climatic conditions. Hoping that the pastures will be greener on the other side, they find nothing but animosity where they land as conflict over land and water resources ensues.

Desperate situations call for desperate measures.

While the UNCCD appears to be working intensively to restore degraded land in and around the Sahel region, aid agencies have also been doing their part to alleviate the double tragedy that continues to strike the people of Mali.

To the rescue

“Our teams in Mali are witnessing firsthand the impact of climate change, shocks and risks on the people we work with and their environment,” Mohamed Cisse, International Committee of the Red Cross  (ICRC) spokesperson in Mali told TRT World.

“Communities affected by violence are particularly vulnerable to climate shocks because conflict and violence limit their capacity to cope with changes – and vice versa.”

Climate change in the Sahel is about far more than water scarcity, Cisse said, adding that it affects all aspects of life, from health and nutrition to personal safety and the viability of local economies.

These hardships, therefore, require a holistic approach, he pointed out.

Cisse said as desertification spreads, for example, surface soils absorb less water, making it more likely that when heavy rains fall, the rainwater spills off into quickly formed, fast-running streams rather than soak into aquifers.

“This is one reason that in Mali, underground water is harder and harder to find,” Bamako-based Cisse said.

Despite these challenges, however, the ICRC in 2018 managed to build several water wells in some areas of the north, including in the village of Razelma, located in the arid region of Timbuktu, where returning local populations used to walk long distances to find drinking water, which was not suitable for human consumption.

“Today, Thank God, we have taps nearby our houses and even our livestock quench their thirst alongside us,” one Razelma resident said after the ICRC installed the water wells.

Faced with these complexities, the ICRC said only digging new wells was not a solution. Therefore it was tapping into low tech: building or refurbishing ‘micro dams’ that create small ponds along creek beds during flash floods.

“The dams slow the water down, allowing it to sink into the ground and replenish aquifers. The ICRC has built four such micro dams in northern Mali and, as a result, nearby wells did not go dry in 2018, ” he explained.

Malians wave to a French military helicopter near Bourem, northern Mali, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013.
Malians wave to a French military helicopter near Bourem, northern Mali, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. (AP)

Nevertheless, the projects seem to have hit security challenges. Cisse deplored the chronic insecurity which he said was complicating efforts to find solutions. 

“With the security situation, we cannot find many contractors willing to send their [well-drilling] machines to a conflict-hit area,” he said.

Incidents involving attacks on aid workers have risen worldwide, and 2018 was the second-worst year on record for aid worker security, with 405 aid workers affected by major violence in 226 separate attacks, according to the Aid Worker Security Report 2019Updated, compiled by Humanitarian Outcomes.

By February 2019, the International NGO Safety Organisation (INSO) had recorded 216 security incidents affecting humanitarians in Mali in 2018. Since 2016, the organisation said ten aid workers had been killed, 31 injured, and 19 kidnapped in this country.

Bleak humanitarian situation

A total of 1,257,292 people require water and sanitation in Mali, and the costs for this amount to $35.1 million, according to the May 2019 figures published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Mali.

Overall, the humanitarian situation is bleak, with 3.9 million people in urgent need of aid. A total of 309,737 have been uprooted from their homes, including 171,437 internally displaced people (IDPs) and 138,300 refugees scattered in neighbouring countries, according to OCHA figures published on 14 October 2019.

Last year, OCHA had 206 humanitarian partners working in Mali, including 74 international NGOs and 15 partners assisting the water, hygiene and sanitation cluster.

Combating desertification

Desertification demands urgent action on every continent and threatens the well-being of about one billion people worldwide, according to the UN.

"Unchecked, it can destroy livelihoods, render land useless, wipe out the habitat of animals and people, generate conflict, prompt migration, and contribute to global warming," the Canada International Development Agency (CIDA) writes.

Droughts kill more than any other climate disaster, and community-based water scarcity is growing.

(United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification)

From the Bangalala region to Lake Turkana and Darfur, from Lake Chad to the northern regions of Mali, Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic, communities migrate and move, sometimes forced, in search of scarce water resources, the UNCCD said.

“If we do not rehabilitate degraded lands by preventing them from further deterioration, we will not be able to protect soils from the impact of climate change, or to replenish underground sources to meet current and future water needs, to defuse ethnic tensions or to reverse migratory flows.”

Land degradation action, which results from desertification, is a bit like climate change.

“It's not a wave, it's not a flood with a breakwater. Sometimes it is comprised of small, very harmful actions by a farmer, rancher or bush fire that constitute a stain, then these small spots sometimes gather together to form a large wound,” according to the UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw.

UNCCD’s facts about water scarcity

 •  Today, over one billion people do not have access to water, and demand will increase by 30 percent by 2030.

• By 2025, 2.4 billion people worldwide are at risk of living in areas with periods of severe water scarcity, which could displace up to 700 million people by 2030.

 • Collectively, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend about 40 billion hours per year collecting water

• Between 1991 and 2000, more than 665,000 people died in 2557 natural disasters, 90 percent of which were caused by water-related events.

• 34 out of 37 countries facing a war risk due to the lack of transboundary cooperation on water resources say they are affected by desertification and land degradation.

• Only three countries in the world have a national drought policy.