Disaster in the Sahel

April 12, 2012

By Jennifer Howells


In the Sahel region of West Africa, a silent killer –drought –is claiming thousands of lives, and many more continue to be at risk of a slow death via malnutrition. Last summer, drought in East Africa killed tens of thousands, devastating both humans and their livestock . While this sort of natural disaster is clearly tragic, the true tragedy is the fact that many of these deaths were likely avoidable.


The Oxfam report A Dangerous Delay takes the aid community to task for its sluggish response to last year’s East African drought, which unfolded as agencies waited to mobilize until all uncertainty about the existence of the crisis was gone. That meant relying on a costly delivery of food, water, and other forms of aid to those who were already starving.

The Sahel is no stranger to drought, but the environmental problem is compounded by  inflated grain prices due to widespread market speculation, a lack of effective emergency response infrastructure and the recent African population explosion. These combined factors threaten to send many deeper into poverty and claim the lives of the most vulnerable. Chronic malnutrition faced by children living through these droughts will continue to affect their development long after the current food shortages are alleviated, causing a whole host of problems including stunted growth and susceptibility to infections. These long term effects have not only health but economic ramifications as well, as a physically and mentally impaired workforce is staggeringly less productive .


The international community has historically failed to act in Africa in moments of humanitarian crisis. Rwanda and Darfur were long-ignored conflicts, overshadowed by the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. A UNICEF study from 2010, another drought year for the Sahel, estimates that funding shortfalls to implement needed aid programs exceeded $24 million. As the Oxfam report Rethinking Disasters emphasizes, it is humans –not nature –that create real disasters through our failure to implement timely, well-planned, and long-term focused interventions that can effectively promote development while managing risk.


Climate change will only exacerbate drought in the Sahel , as nations in the developing world will bear the largest burden while having the least capacity to adapt. According to U.S. Intelligence estimates, as drought events continue to increase in duration and severity, tensions over natural resources –especially water –will erupt, further plaguing an already conflict-prone region. In order to avert future tragedies, the donor community must (note: this is a great opportunity for engineers, public health practitioners, and policymakers to collaborate):


  • recognize and act on the early signs of drought indicated by highly-advanced warning systems
  • focus on long-term sustainable infrastructure development in areas like water, sanitation, health, and transportation systems over very costly short-term interventions that only serve to reinforce a cycle of dependency on foreign aid


Members of the international community with the capacity to do so have an ethical imperative, rooted in social justice considerations, to reverse the dramatic inequities that abound between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” both within and among nations. Further, the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals demands the efforts of all nations. Without international cooperation and assistance, droughts in Africa will continue to result in tragically unnecessary deaths and hinder that continent’s overall ability to develop and break the cycle of poverty that consumes too many African states. These imperatives are never clearer than in the face of imminent and avoidable disasters.



Jennifer Howells, BSCE, BA, B.Phil, is a Master’s student in Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and a Research/Administrative Assistant at the Berman Institute of Bioethics. Her interests lie at the intersection of the environment, public health, and international affairs.

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Jennifer Howells

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