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Population growth far outpaces food supply in conflict-ravaged Sahel - study

by Chris Arsenault | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 20 October 2014 13:50 GMT

A farmer stands beside goats in Hashaba, a village located 20 km north of Shangil Tobaya, North Darfur March 27, 2011. REUTERS/Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID/Handout

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Political violence seems likely to intensify as growing populations battle for dwindling food supplies

ROME, Oct 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Sahel region's ability to produce food is not keeping pace with its growing population, and global warming will only exacerbate the imbalance, according to a new study.

Among the 22 countries making up the arid region in northern Africa, the population grew to 471 million in 2010 from 367 million in 2000, a jump of nearly 30 percent.

As the population grew rapidly, the production of crops remained essentially unchanged, said researchers from Lund University in Sweden.

Using satellite images to calculate annual crop production in the conflict-ridden Sahel belt, south of the Sahara Desert, the researchers then compared output to population growth and food and fuel consumption.

Their findings showed the region's resources would not be enough to sustain the population if current trends continue.

In 2000, the Sahel's population consumed the equivalent, in food and fuel, of 19 percent of the carbon available from the landscape. That jumped to 41 percent in 2010, reported the study titled "The supply and demand of net primary production in the Sahel" published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Global warming will further exacerbate the situation, scientists said, as higher air temperatures will reduce harvests, even if the region sees an anticipated increase in rainfall due to changing weather patterns.

In a region wracked by several insurgencies and conflicts, an increase in food scarcity is particularly worrying.

"Tensions in Darfur (western Sudan) are between nomadic pastoralists and agriculturalists," Hakim Abdi, lead author of study, said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"This tension stems partially from a lack of resources."

In addition to violence in Darfur, the Sahel faces Islamist insurgencies in parts of Libya, Chad and Niger, along with an uprising by ethnic Tuareg separatists in Mali.

Political violence seems likely to intensify as growing populations battle for dwindling food supplies. Some of the world's fastest growing populations are located in the region.

Niger, the poorest place on earth according to the U.N.'s Human Development Index, also has world's highest birthrate, followed by Mali.

There were just 30 million people living in the Sahel in 1950, according to research from the University of Berkley. The population is expected to reach close to one billion by 2050.

Ibrahim Coulibaly, a Malian farmer and activist with Via Campesina, has daily experience with the impacts of climate change analysed by the study. He said feuding politicians as well as global warming created a difficult environment for farmers.

New technology and supports will be key for farmers to respond to the imbalances, he said.

"Producing results to overcoming food insecurity means we need to take a fresh look at innovation in family farms," Coulibaly told delegates at a U.N. panel in Rome last week.

Drought resistant crops and new infrastructure for processing and transporting food, along with new publicly funded training for small farmers were needed to increase resilience, he said.

Scientists agree that drought resistant crops and new techniques could improve production in the short or medium term, but might not be enough to ensure security over the longer term in the face of population growth and disruption linked to global warming.

"When resources are low and climate change induced decreases in net primary production take place, I can generally say there would be potential increases in conflict," Abdi said.

(Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Ros Russell)

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