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Climate Issues: The Sahel at the center of debates but a blind spot in research

In recent years, the media has regularly covered natural disasters—floods, droughts, etc.—caused by climate change, occurring at increasingly regular intervals, see the rapport of UNDRR, "The human cost of disasters: an overview of the last 20 years (2000-2019)." Despite the significant current interest in these phenomena and their growing importance for the future, the African continent, especially the sub-Saharan region, which is severely affected by climate change, has so far been somewhat of a blind spot, explain researchers Bjoern Schueler and Sissy Sepp from the University of Marburg in Germany in "Klima und Gesellschaft im Wandel"

The causes and consequences of climate change are subjects of research not only in the media but also across many scientific disciplines. This theme is not new. In the 1970s and 1980s, public interest sometimes focused on regions like the Sahel, which faced devastating droughts and famines. Researchers Bjoern Schueler and Sissy Sepp from the University of Marburg explain in "Climate and Society in Transition" that during a stay in southern Mauritania, journalist Herbert Kaufmann was already writing in 1973 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ): "Those who have reached Rosso are saved. Those who have made it to Nouakchott, Kaedi, Kiffa, and Aioun - el Atros have indeed lost their livestock, but they have kept their lives. In living memory, such a catastrophe had never occurred."

Nowadays, phenomena and disasters attributed to climate changes are tangible realities everywhere. Vital areas such as agricultural production, water and energy supply are threatened. While some regions battle floods, others suffer from droughts. Climatologists estimate that some coastal and island regions like the Maldives will be submerged by rising sea levels, while the Sahel will experience more frequent and intense droughts.

Numerous scientific disciplines and the media, around the world, deal with the causes, consequences, and the social relationship of climate change, environmental degradation, their risks, and impact on society, etc. In Burkina Faso, although a few specialists grasp the phenomenon, the societal perspective remains diversified and not clearly established.

The survey on the perception of Burkinabè internet users regarding climate change and environmental degradation, conducted by the Observatory for the Analysis of Educational and Social Issues in Burkina (OPES)—a study in which we participated—clearly illustrates this point. This perception study aimed to, among other objectives, identify the threats Burkinabè internet users find most alarming and evaluate the actions they consider most effective in protecting the environment and combating climate change.

The study's report reveals that fewer than 25% of internet users view global warming and environmental degradation as major threats, with only 20% considering air pollution a significant concern.

For Ousseni Bancé, a social psychologist by training, even if “climate change refers to the upheavals observed in the cycle of natural phenomena such as rain, wind, the state of the soil, the nature of the wind... and that Burkina it is manifested by the destructive force of rains in cities, the disappearance or progressive crumbling of certain animals or plants, the majority of populations have not yet succeeded in associating the causes and their direct effects. For example, the heron, companion of oxen or certain scavengers have completely disappeared from certain localities where they were easily found. But unfortunately it does not challenge populations on the direct relationship with environmental problems. “Talking about climate change also means talking about the warming of the earth, which is felt by the weather and by the intense heat observed in localities in Burkina,” he explains.

According to Mr. Bancé, the risks associated with climate change are varied and perceived by the population without a clear understanding of their direct causes. A primary concern is the unpredictability of the rain cycle. "In a country where family and rural agriculture rely on traditional knowledge, based on interpretations and the transmission of ancestral wisdom, the irregularity of rains undoubtedly affects crop yields. Seeds are selected based on their response to heat, cold, and rainfall. Changes in these conditions will inevitably lead to losses. Furthermore, urban planning in Burkina Faso's cities does not adequately consider natural phenomena, which could explain the frequent flooding and other issues."

For Burkinabè journalist Boureima Salouka, a significant portion of the population is closely connected to nature and is cognizant of these changes. "My concern for the quality of the environment in all its dimensions—plants, animals, water, etc.—stems from my family background since childhood," he shares. To him, the concept of climate change is extensive because it represents an evolutionary dynamic that impacts life in every sense and is of particular relevance to Burkina Faso, a Sahel country facing significant demographic challenges and serious environmental issues. "The degradation of vegetation, soil, groundwater, and surface water quality, especially due to gold mining and the use of mercury and cyanide, has direct effects on our lives, politically, security-wise (militarily), and especially in terms of food."

With these challenges come problems and dangers, but also opportunities for countries like Burkina Faso to innovate and approach things differently. Regarding the social consequences of climate change, "they are right before our eyes, and this is what we refer to as the Sahel crisis." For journalist Salouka, "many were quick to attribute this crisis to Islamism, radicalization, or state weakness, but it's important to recognize the environmental dimension as well." With countries experiencing rapid population growth and facing scarcity of natural resources, competition for these resources has escalated into conflicts, often mischaracterized as intercommunity disputes. "These are conflicts arising from resource scarcity and the competition for their control. The notion of climate refugees is increasingly discussed worldwide and also in our regions. "Many young people from the Sahel, venturing through the Sahara to cross the Atlantic, confront these issues. Domestically, we're witnessing a reshuffling of populations.

In response, there have been fundraising campaigns and charitable efforts drawing sporadic attention to disasters in the Sahel. However, the global public's interest wanes quickly after initial actions. There's virtually no interdisciplinary dialogue between climatologists and social scientists about the effects of climate change in this region, let alone articles on the social perception of the phenomenon. It's time for this oversight to gain more visibility, enabling the populations of this region, especially in Burkina Faso, to be central in discussions on climate change and environmental degradation.

Belélé Jérôme William Bationo


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