The Sahel: A Climate Change Hotspot

Laura Maschio

via Unsplash / Matt Palmer

Recent literature has defined climate change hotspots as regions where climate signals combine with high human vulnerability. As a consequence, these regions are the most likely to be impacted by climate change, but the least likely to successfully adapt to its negative effects.

The Mediterranean region, with its rising temperatures, erratic weather patterns, decline in precipitations, heat waves, sea level rise, and droughts, is a full-fledged climate change hotspot. In August 2021, a new record for the highest temperature ever recorded was set both in Europe and across the Strait of Sicily in Tunis, with temperatures ranging between 48.8 and 49ºC, breaking the previous records set in the late 1970s and early 1980s respectively. At the same time, massive wildfires would break out in the Mediterranean area, severely impacting the livelihoods of populations.[1]

As can be seen from the maps above, some deeply worrying data are being collected in the Sahel, both in terms of rising temperatures and of climate change vulnerability of societies and ecosystems. In this connection, the Sahara-Sahel region is increasingly depicted as a conveyor belt that could fuel the destabilisation of the whole Mediterranean region.

Environment in the Sahel

Historically, the African continent has contributed the least to carbon emissions, and yet is paying the highest price of climate change. This is particularly true when talking about the Sahel, whose structural environmental fragility is very likely to lead to extreme poverty and massive migration. As a matter of fact, more and more erratic rainfall seasons, severe droughts, floods, and heat waves are posing a serious threat to livelihoods: the agricultural sector employs the overwhelmingly majority of the Sahelian people, reaching peaks of 75 percent of the population in Chad [2], creating a strong dependence of livelihoods on agriculture and pastoralism, which in turn are highly susceptible to weather trends.

This conjunction of factors, together with worldwide-high levels of demographic growth and resource scarcity, is causing very low levels of food security and undermining the social stability of the region. Furthermore, allegations of a possible desertification of the Sahel have recently found space in policy and media discourse. Such claims are based on the expected combined effects of decreased rainfalls and the increasing demand for natural resources by a constantly growing population.

In addition to exacerbating food insecurity in the region, the depletion of natural resources caused by the environmental degradation of the Sahel is expected to affect mobility patterns, leaving people with no choice but to move. As can be observed in the aftermath of the 1970s and 1980s droughts in West Africa, mobility is indeed the most common coping strategy put in place by the Sahelian populations in face of climate disasters.[3]

Past Trends and Future Projections

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Sahel was hit by prolonged and intense droughts as a result of a major decline in precipitations. As a consequence of these droughts, the Sahelian soil reached unparalleled levels of exhaustion, which in turn caused famines and large-scale herd losses, and condemned the farming and herding communities to poverty. The droughts resulted in a number of casualties ranging between 100.000 and 1 million, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to move to urban centres or neighbouring countries.[4] As a matter of fact, research has demonstrated how migration and mobility strategies were historically adopted by the Sahelians to face the scarcity of food supplies.

via Unsplash / Annie Spratt

As for the future, the Sahel is expected to experience mounting and intertwined security challenges, including poverty, underdevelopment, insecurity, and armed conflict. The region’s inherent vulnerability to environmental degradation is posing an even greater threat to human security: it is estimated that, by 2080, temperatures will rise between 2.0 and 4.3ºC compared to the pre-industrial levels, while an increase in annual precipitations of up to 16mm is likely to occur. Moreover, more extreme wet and dry periods are expected, possibly leading to floods and droughts. In the same period, water availability per capita is projected to decline by up to 77 percent, as compared to the year 2000.[5]

Meanwhile, a further surge in violence is expected across the region, that in the last decade has already witnessed a significant growth in armed conflict, the rise of jihadist groups, and frequent military coups. The intersection of conflict and worsening weather conditions, leading to precarious livelihoods and mounting food insecurity, is therefore very likely to drive displacement and massive migration in the Sahel, both in the short and the long term.

[1] A. Dessì, F. Fusco, “Framing the Climate Emergency in the Mediterranean”, in Andrea Dessì and Flavia Fusco (eds.), Climate Change and Security in the Mediterranean: Exploring the Nexus, Unpacking International Policy Responses, Rome, Edizioni Nuova Cultura, 2022, p. 15-34.

[2] World Bank Data, Employment in Agriculture (% of Total Employment),

[3] See: L. Raineri, “Drought, Desertification and Displacement: Re-Politicising the Climate-Conflict Nexus in the Sahel,” in Andrea Dessì and Flavia Fusco (eds.), Climate Change and Security in the Mediterranean: Exploring the Nexus, Unpacking International Policy Responses, Rome, Edizioni Nuova Cultura, 2022, p. 81-110.

[4] Ibid.

[5] J. Blocher, L. Destrijcker et al. (2022), Moving from Reaction to Action – Anticipating Vulnerability Hotspots in the Sahel: A synthesis report from the Sahel Predictive Analytics project in support of the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS). Available at