In the Sahel, Time Has Already Run Out on Climate Change

Image via Refugees International, taken in Burkina Faso

Ed note. This is a special guest post from Alice Thomas of Refugees International

Burkina FasoDriving north from Kaya in northern Burkina Faso, the land grows increasingly barren. Acacia trees, with their forbidding inch-long thorns, are scattered across the dry, red earth. Goats appear here and there, some standing on their hind legs to reach the few leaves that remain at the end of the lean season, before the rains come. My colleagues and I are entering the Sahel, a vast, semi-arid zone that stretches across Africa and is home to 100 million people. Further north lays the Sahara desert.

We pull off the paved road and proceed to Boulyiba, a small village of 15 to 20 circular, mud huts. Under a large tree, a group of men, women, and children have gathered, seeking shade from the staggering mid-morning heat and awaiting our arrival. The people of this village rely on a mix of subsistence farming and animal herding to feed their families. They, like 80 percent of the people who live in the Sahel, are entirely dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods. They are also among the world’s poorest people.

I sit down with a small group of men and women and the topic quickly turns to the weather. Amadou, the village leader chief, describes the severe droughts his village experienced from time to time when he was growing up. There was a time when the rains were more reliable. “Now the rains are poor,” he says, furrowing his brow.  “We cannot predict them – they come too early or too late. And there is either too much rain or too little.”

The other men and women describe similar, more recent changes in the weather. Good years are punctuated by bad ones, they say. In 2010, there was not enough rain. In 2011, sudden downpours came early, causing a nearby village to flood – something that people here had never seen before. But after the flooding, the rains largely ceased and crops withered, forcing families here to sell livestock or other assets, or go into debt to buy food. “And it’s hotter,” another adds. “We hope for rain but all we get is hot, dry wind.”

With lower crops yields and less water and pasture for their animals, it has become harder for the people of Boulyiba to get by. And it will only get worse. Temperatures in the Sahel are projected to rise an additional 7 to 10°F by mid-century. Climatologists also predict that rainfall patterns will become more erratic. In Bighuin, another village to the north, I ask a group of men why they think the weather is changing. “It’s because there are less trees,” one man surmises. The chief says, “Maybe it is because our faces have changed, and God no longer recognizes us.”

One of the younger men, perhaps in his late 20s, interjects to ask me, “Why do you think the weather is changing?” His sinewy arms and dirty clothes suggest a life of hard labor in the fields or the nearby gold mines, where more and more young men in the village (and often women and children) have gone to supplement their poor harvests and lagging incomes.

I explain that many scientists believe that developed countries like the U.S. are using too much energy – producing too much electricity and driving too many cars – which produces pollution. This pollution is collecting in the atmosphere and may be causing the earth to warm and the climate to change.

A sad smile emerges on his face. “You rich countries have all the knowledge, but it is you who are heating the planet.”

The people of this village have no running water, electricity, televisions, or cars – they contribute virtually nothing to the warming of our planet. As I leave, it becomes harder to look them in the eye, knowing that most people in my country have no idea what is happening here, or how our way of life may be making it harder for them to feed their families, or even survive.

President Obama’s announcement that he will unveil a plan on Tuesday to cut U.S. carbon emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change at home  “for the sake of our children and future generations,” is undoubtedly welcome and long overdue. The American public must demand no less. But here in the Sahel, time for action is running short and cannot wait for the future.

As we say our goodbyes, one of the older women takes my hand. “Your people must fix their problems,” she tells me, her face deeply creased from sun, wind, and worry. “We are patient. But it is hard to be patient when you’re hungry.”

Alice Thomas is the Climate Displacement Program Manager for Refugees International, a non-profit organization that works to end displacement and stateless crises worldwide and receives no government or UN funding.