From species extinction to family planning: Vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in the West African Sahel

By John C. Weber and Carmen Sotelo Montes

Participatory analysis of vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in the Sahel

Participatory analysis of vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in the Sahel

According to most climate forecasts, people in the West African Sahel— an arid to semi-arid belt stretching across northern Africa—can expect a hotter, drier and more variable climate this century. Already, environmental stresses are being felt and farming is increasingly more difficult in the region. But what do rural people in the Sahel perceive to be the reason for this changing climate? How vulnerable do they feel themselves to be? And, most importantly, what do they plan to do different in order to cope with the threats posed by the coming climate?

As part of an IFAD-funded project titled ‘Parkland trees and livelihoods: adapting to climate change in the West African Sahel’, we carried out a participatory analysis of vulnerability and adaptation to climate change involving approximately 500 men, women and children from 36 villages in the West African Sahelian countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The analysis yielded some expected results, and some surprising insights.

The villagers said some dramatic changes had occurred on their landscapes over the past 30-50 years. They pointed out, in particular, the extensive disappearance of natural woodlands, which over time had been converted into parklands which include annual crops, trees and livestock production. The trees in these parklands continue to be overharvested for fuel, fodder, medicines and foods, which curtails their natural regeneration.  Compounding the situation are the large herds of livestock—owned by the villagers or nomadic pastoralists—that roam free in parklands and woodlands: browsing by these cattle, goats and sheep further limits the chances of trees and seedlings regenerating naturally.

Another change was the local extinction of many native tree species, especially in the drier regions, as a result of over-exploitation by humans and livestock. In south-central Niger, for instance, villagers could name more than 50 tree species that have completely disappeared from the landscape.

They also noted the local extinction of most wild animals (especially mammals, birds, turtles and lizards) from overhunting and habitat conversion; extensive soil degradation and reduced soil fertility; lower and less predictable rainfall, and a deeper water table.

We found that most villagers recognized that their own (and their ancestors’) actions were responsible for many of the changes they were witnessing in their landscapes. This knowledge is crucial for any climate change adaptation plan, since it bolsters people’s confidence that they can alter or adopt certain practices to reverse the trend and/or better adapt themselves to a harsher climate.

Most villagers, surprisingly, saw no link between human activity and a deeper water table, blaming it entirely on natural climate change. Reduced tree cover leads to less local rainfall and a deeper water table, and we had expected this relationship to be clear. It was difficult to explain certain concepts, such as cause-effect-consequence, in local languages, and we often resorted to using local metaphors. Clearly, extension and education programmes that explain crucial ecological relationships to farmers are needed, and we believe farmer-to-farmer exchange of knowledge models would work best.

To respond to the environmental stresses of the future, the villagers said that the following actions in parklands would form part of their adaptation plan:

  • Practicing farmer assisted natural regeneration
  • Diversifying and increasing drought tolerance of the parklands by planting and protecting a range of selected species, using seedlings produced from seeds that were collected in drier locations;
  • Practicing soil and water conservation; and
  • Controlling free browsing by animals.

participatory analysis of vulnerability and adaptation to climate change As we expected, villagers in drier regions considered that their trees were more vulnerable to drought compared with villagers in more humid regions. Therefore, adaptation plans in the drier regions must put more emphasis on planting trees that are more drought tolerant and practicing soil water conservation techniques in parklands. Regional differences such as this are important to capture in an analysis of vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. There are limited financial and human resources for implementing adaptation plans, so adaptation plans should focus on the physical and natural resources that villagers themselves identify as most vulnerable to threats in their particular region. In other words, generic adaptation plans that are developed without active participation and input of villagers in different regions cannot efficiently respond to the vulnerability of villagers in different regions.

It is also important to understand vulnerability and adaptation plans of different gender groups, such as adult men, adult women, young men and young women. Gender roles by livelihood activity are sharply defined in most Sahelian communities. For example, adult men and young men typically engage in agriculture and animal herding respectively, while the sale of food products from trees and fuelwood collection falls on adult women and young women respectively. The gender groups classified these and many other of their livelihood activities as “very vulnerable” or “severely vulnerable” to drought and degraded soils. Adaptation plans of these gender groups must therefore pay special emphasis to these twin threats.

All groups except ‘young women’ listed “lack of financial capital” as an important vulnerability factor. Young women and young men said “insufficient woodland” was an important factor; this was expected, as woodlands are used for herding animals and collecting firewood.

Adult women in several villages flagged two more threats to their livelihood in a changing climate: large families and small farm sizes that force many young men to migrate. To the women, managing the size of their families so all children can be properly fed, clothed and educated is an essential component of their personal climate adaptation strategy, and inseparable from their communities’ natural resource management efforts.

About the research:

The IFAD-funded project ‘Parkland trees and livelihoods: adapting to climate change in the West African Sahel’ is a partnership of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), national agriculture research institutes, forestry extension institutes and IFAD investment projects in the three countries:

  • Burkina Faso: Institut National de l’Environnement et des Recherches Agricoles, Direction des Eaux et Forêt, Programme de Développement Rural Durable, Programme d’Investissement Communautaire en Fertilité Agricole
  • Mali: Institut d’Économie Rurale, Direction Nationale de la Conservation de la Nature, Fonds du Développement en Zone Sahélienne
  • Niger: Institut National de Recherche Agronomique du Niger, Direction Nationale de l’Environnement, Programme de Promotion des Initiatives Paysannes pour le Développement d’Aguié


Related publications:

Methodological guide used for participatory analysis: Analyse participative de la vulnérabilité et de l’adaptation aux changements climatiques: un guide méthodologique. (ICRAF Occasional Paper #19) Download PDF

Stories from the field: Planting for a Harsher Climate in the Malian Sahel. IFAD publication. Download PDF

Développement de l’agroforesterie dans le  Sahel Ouest Africain


Related articles and multimedia

Adapting to change in the Sahel | World Agroforestry Centre

Re-greening the Sahel | World Agroforestry Centre

The carbon sequestration potential of farms in the African Sahel

How planting trees can prevent violence in Africa’s drylands

Sprouting success in Senegal: trees offer growing solution to Sahel

Farmer-assisted natural regeneration (video)'

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

You may also like...