While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that an increase in global warming will adversely affect livestock and crop production, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, herders have already seen increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, drought, floods, and land degradation threaten their way of life.
Saidou Harouna Ba surveys what’s left of his only source of income: his animal herd. “If I’d stayed at home, they would all be dead,” he says. As it is, the 46-year-old Fulani herder returned to his village in Senegal’s northern Podor County after 10 months away with just half the number of sheep, cattle, and donkeys he set out with.
Losing half the herd means Saidou lost half his wealth. A year ago, he was not badly off, able to comfortably support his family. Now, because of the toll climate change has taken, coupled with a government ill-equipped to deal with the fallout, he’s bordering on poverty.
Six million people in the Sahel faced severe food shortages in a prolonged lean season between January and August this year; Senegal was one of the three worst affected countries in the region. It may get worse yet, as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 2.5 million livestock herders, or “pastoralists,” and those who raise both livestock and crops in the Sahel risk losing their income.
As soon as the rainy season ended last September, it became clear that erratic rainfall had led to diminished pasture across the Sahel. This forced northern herders like Saidou, who normally begin travelling south in January or February, to embark on their annual journey up to four months early, and in far greater numbers than usual.
Seasonal migration – which helps over-grazed regions recover by temporarily shifting the burden to areas with more pasture – is common way of life for the Fulani, one of the Sahel’s largest ethnic groups. But as the length of the migration period and the distance herders are forced to travel to find food and water for their livestock increases, their economic well-being and very way of life are at risk.
Life in pastoral communities revolves around their main source of financial capital: the herd. So when animals are placed under stress, the social fabric also suffers. “Food security is above all assured by the security of the herd,” says Aliou Samba Ba, president of the Senegalese branch of the Réseau Billital Maroobé (RBM), a network of pastoralist associations in West Africa.
“If there was good rain, all of our problems would be solved,” says Saidou. This isn’t looking likely: in the Sahel, the gaps between the hardship years are getting smaller and weather conditions are becoming more extreme.
In the last five years, some areas in Senegal have reported decreases of between 50 and 100 percent in crops and grazing areas so the cost of manufactured animal feed has skyrocketed. A 40 kg sack of feed that cost around $12 in October 2017 had risen to $23 by March. Herders had to sell off animals to buy feed to sustain the rest of their herds, leaving a severe dent in their wealth.
It’s difficult to predict the conditions of the season ahead, and with donkey-drawn carts as the primary means of transport, carrying large stocks of feed presents logistical difficulties.As the year went on, herds intermingled around scarce water supplies and the incidence of disease rose. Foot-and-mouth disease killed young animals and slowed the pace of already weak herds forced to hobble long distances in search of sustenance.
Then on 27 June, Senegal’s first rains came, accompanied by an unseasonably cold wind. Tens of thousands of animals died in the space of a day as the long-awaited rains became a killer. Some herders lost everything.
Children were among the first to suffer. Many accompanied their parents on the journey south to help with the herd or because no one was left at home to care for them. For those who ordinarily attended school, this meant missing an academic year. Healthcare was non-existent when they became ill camping under tarpaulin sheets. “Social services are not adapted to mobility,” observes Noël Marie Zagré, regional nutrition adviser at UNICEF, the UN’s agency for children.
Traders also saw a dip in sales, and many shut up shop during the migration period. Aly Amadou Diop runs a homeware store in the town of Ndioum that remained open. “I haven’t made a profit this year,” he says, “I don’t want to leave Ndioum,” he continues, “but if there’s another year like this I’ll be forced to look at other options abroad.”