Explainer: What is the Sahel and why is it so important?

Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region is a crucible of climate change, population movement and jihadist attacks.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this month called it a “microcosm of cascading global risks converging in one region.”

– What is it ? –

In pure geographic terms the Sahel, or Sahil in Arabic, meaning coast or shore, is a vast region that stretches along the Sahara desert’s southern rim from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

Wedged between the desert to the north and tropical forests and savannah to the south, the belt has a tropical semi-arid climate.

– Where is it ? –

There are many different political definitions of which countries actually belong to the Sahel.

But a core group — Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania — is known as the G5 Sahel.

Other definitions take in parts of Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea.

– Jihadist hunting ground –

With vast stretches of inhospitable desert, the central Sahel is notoriously difficult to control and has become a hunting ground for armed groups, rebels and jihadists roaming freely between countries.

Jihadist violence erupted after a rebellion in northern Mali in 2012. The conflict has since spread to the centre of the country, as well as to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, claiming thousands of lives and displacing more than 3.5 million people.

Several anti-jihadist military operations have been launched in the area, including the French Barkhane operation and G5 Sahel force, which brings together the five country’s local armies. 

The area has been the scene of some high profile kidnappings. As of November 18 at least six western hostages were still being held.

Climate change –

As the world battles climate change, global warming is around 50 percent greater in the Sahel. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the region suffered the worst droughts of anywhere on the planet.

This has contributed to a staggering 90 per cent decline of the surface of Lake Chad over the past 40 years and a race is on to stop the main source of fresh water to 40 million people across four countries drying up.

In February, 17 Sahel countries set down a plan to invest $400 billion in fighting climate change by 2030.

– Population pressure –

The region, which is broadly very poor, has one of the highest demographic growth rates in the world.

The population of the G5 Sahel region is expected to more than double to around 170 million by 2050, according to the United Nations. 

Amid the unrest, poverty and climate change, the UN said internal displacement had increased 20-fold in less than two years and the number of families facing hunger has tripled. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problems.