Report warns of impending problems in Africa

A farmer in southeastern Mali tills his field. Mali is among the countries includes in the Sahel region, which a report warns will face a series of problems in the future.

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With the magnification of global warming and a regional population explosion, a vast region of Africa will soon find itself struggling with massive food shortages and widespread violence, UC Berkeley researchers hypothesize in a report published Tuesday.

The report, entitled “Crisis in the Sahel,” identifies four major challenges facing the region — namely climate change, population growth, natural resource depletion and insufficient education of women in the Sahel, a semiarid section of Africa south of the Sahara Desert.

If no action is taken to address the challenges, the rapid increase in population size in the region, coupled with global warming, will cause the region to become unlivable in coming decades, said Malcolm Potts, a professor of population and family planning at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and a co-author of the report.

“There will be increasing malnutrition, and it’s always children who die first,” Potts said. “We’ll see more terrorism and more fighting over resources. People will begin to die because of conflict.”

According to Michael Wehner, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the report, global warming can no longer be entirely prevented, and therefore, the Sahel region will benefit the most from proactive decision-making.

“To think that we’re going to stop climate change is pretty naive, and the sooner (we) start recognizing that and adapting to it, the better off we are,” Wehner said. “You can’t wait until the problems have accrued, because if you do, then it’s too late.”

The paper suggests possible courses of action, including extensive research and investment in technologies that utilize global warming to the region’s advantage, such as new water-storage systems for farmers. However, such structures are expensive and could take decades to implement.

“The hardest part is convincing others that you need to tackle the problems in the Sahel from three different perspectives at once — not just population growth, climate change or environmental degradation alone,” said Federico Castillo, a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s department of environmental science, policy and management and a study co-author.

The report also emphasizes the importance of improving the conditions for women in the Sahel region.

Currently, child marriage is extremely common, and women of all ages lack the ability to make choices to limit the number of children they have, Potts said. This has led to large-scale population increases.

“I can think of nothing more fundamental than being able to control one’s own bodily integrity, including when, if and how many children to have,” said Courtney Henderson, a doctoral student in the School of Public Health and another study co-author. “Contraception gives women this control over their own fertility.”

Contact Claire Chiara at [email protected].