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Camels trample the soil in the semiarid Sahel as they move to water holes, such as this one in Chad
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The Sahel region in Africa: a belt up to 1,000 km (620 mi) wide that spans 5,400 km (3,360 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea
Realm Afrotropical
Biome Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, and shrublands
Animals Camels, Horses
Bird species Migratory birds
Mammal species Oryx, Gazelles, African buffalo
Area3,053,200 km2 (1,178,800 sq mi)
Elevation200 and 400 meters (660 and 1,310 ft)
Rivers Senegal, Niger, Nile
Climate type Semi-arid

The Sahel ( /səˈhɛl/ ; Arabic : ساحلsāḥil [ˈsaːħil] , "coast, shore") [1] is a region in North Africa. It is defined as the ecoclimatic and biogeographic realm of transition between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south. Having a hot semi-arid climate, it stretches across the south-central latitudes of Northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea.


The Sahel part of Africa includes – from west to east – parts of northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, the extreme south of Algeria, Niger, the extreme north of Nigeria, Cameroon and Central African Republic, central Chad, central and southern Sudan, the extreme north of South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. [2]

Historically, the western part of the Sahel was sometimes known as the Sudan region (bilād as-sūdānبلاد السودان "lands of the Sudan"). This belt was located between the Sahara and the coastal areas of West Africa.

There are frequent shortages of food and water due to the dry harsh climate. This is exacerbated by the population increasing rapidly due to very high birthrates across the region; Niger has the world's highest fertility rate.

Jihadist insurgent groups including Boko Haram, Islamic State and al-Qaeda frequently carry out major attacks.


The lush green of the rainy season Sahelian forest, along the Bamako-Kayes Road in Mali. The trees in the foreground are acacia. Note the large baobab tree. Sahel forest near Kayes Mali.jpg
The lush green of the rainy season Sahelian forest, along the Bamako-Kayes Road in Mali. The trees in the foreground are acacia. Note the large baobab tree.
Herders with livestock and azawakh dogs in the Sahel Azawakh 52 jd.jpg
Herders with livestock and azawakh dogs in the Sahel

The Sahel spans 5,900 km (3,670 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, in a belt that varies from several hundred to a thousand kilometers (c. 600 miles) in width, covering an area of 3,053,200 square kilometers (1,178,850 sq mi). It is a transitional ecoregion of semi-arid grasslands, savannas, steppes, and thorn shrublands lying between the wooded Sudanian savanna to the south and the Sahara to the north. [3]

The topography of the Sahel is mainly flat; most of the region lies between 200 and 400 meters (660 and 1,310 ft) in elevation. Several isolated plateaus and mountain ranges rise from the Sahel, but are designated as separate ecoregions because their flora and fauna are distinct from the surrounding lowlands. Annual rainfall varies from around 100–200 mm (4–8 in) in the north of the Sahel to around 700–1,000 mm (28–39 in) in the south. [3]

Flora and fauna

The Sahel is mostly covered in grassland and savanna, with areas of woodland and shrubland. Grass cover is fairly continuous across the region, dominated by annual grass species such as Cenchrus biflorus, Schoenefeldia gracilis and Aristida stipoides. Species of acacia are the dominant trees, with Acacia tortilis the most common, along with Acacia senegal and Acacia laeta . Other tree species include Commiphora africana , Balanites aegyptiaca , Faidherbia albida , and Boscia senegalensis . In the northern part of the Sahel, areas of desert shrub, including Panicum turgidum and Aristida sieberana , alternate with areas of grassland and savanna. During the long dry season, many trees lose their leaves and the predominantly annual grasses die.

The Sahel was formerly home to large populations of grazing mammals, including the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), dama gazelle (Gazella dama), Dorcas gazelle (Gazella dorcas), red-fronted gazelle (Gazella rufifrons), the giant prehistoric buffalo (Pelorovis) and Bubal hartebeest (Alcelaphus busephalus buselaphus), along with large predators like the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), the Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki), the Northeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii), the lion (Panthera leo). The larger species have been greatly reduced in number by over-hunting and competition with livestock, and several species are vulnerable (Dorcas gazelle, cheetah, lion and red-fronted gazelle), endangered (Dama gazelle and African wild dog), or extinct (the Scimitar-horned oryx is probably extinct in the wild, and both Pelorovis and the Bubal hartebeest are now extinct).

The seasonal wetlands of the Sahel are important for migratory birds moving within Africa and on the African-Eurasian flyways. [3]


Ennedi Plateau is located at the border of the Sahara and the Sahel Acacia Trees (24227057806).jpg
Ennedi Plateau is located at the border of the Sahara and the Sahel

The Sahel has a tropical semi-arid climate (Köppen climate classification BSh). The climate is typically hot, sunny, dry and somewhat windy all year long. The Sahel's climate is similar to, but less extreme than, the climate of the Sahara desert located just to the north.

The Sahel mainly receives a low to very low amount of precipitation annually. The steppe has a very long, prevailing dry season and a short rainy season. The precipitation is also extremely irregular, and varies considerably from season to season. Most of the rain usually falls during four to six months in the middle of the year, while the other months may remain absolutely dry. The interior of the Sahel region generally receives between 200 mm and 700 mm of rain yearly. A system of subdivisions often adopted for the Sahelian climate based on annual rainfall is as follows: the Saharan-Sahelian climate, with mean annual precipitation between around 100 and 200 mm (such as Khartoum, Sudan), the strict Sahelian climate, with mean annual precipitation between around 200 and 700 mm (such as Niamey, Niger) and the Sahelian-Sudanese climate, with mean annual precipitation between around 700 and 900 mm (such as Bamako, Mali). The relative humidity in the steppe is low to very low, often between 10% and 25% during the dry season and between 25% and 75% during the rainy season. The least humid places have a relative humidity under 35%.[ citation needed ]

The Sahel is characterized by constant, intense heat, with an unvarying temperature. The Sahel rarely experiences cold temperatures. During the hottest period, the average high temperatures are generally between 36 and 42 °C (97 and 108 °F) (and even more in the hottest regions), often for more than three months, while the average low temperatures are around 25 to 31 °C (77 to 88 °F). During the "coldest period", the average high temperatures are between 27 and 33 °C (81 and 91 °F) and the average low temperatures are between 15 and 21 °C (59 and 70 °F). [4] Everywhere in the Sahel, the average mean temperature is over 18 °C (64 °F).

The Sahel has a high to very high sunshine duration year-round, between 2,400 hours (about 55% of the daylight hours) and 3,600 hours (more than 80% of the daylight hours). The sunshine duration in the Sahel approaches desert levels, and is comparable to that in the Arabian Desert, for example, even though the Sahel is only a steppe and not a desert. The cloud cover is low to very low. For example, Niamey, Niger has 3,082 hours of bright sunshine; Gao, Mali has near 3,385 hours of sunshine; Timbuktu, Mali has 3,409 sunny hours, and N'Djamena, Chad has 3,205 hours of sunlight. [5] [6] [7] [8]


Fulani herders in Mali Danse de peuls avec les boeufs.jpg
Fulani herders in Mali

Traditionally, most of the people in the Sahel have been semi-nomads, farming and raising livestock in a system of transhumance, which is probably the most sustainable way of utilizing the Sahel. The difference between the dry North with higher levels of soil nutrients and the wetter South with more vegetation, is utilized by having the herds graze on high-quality feed in the North during the wet season, and trek several hundred kilometers to the South to graze on more abundant, but less nutritious feed during the dry period.[ citation needed ]

In Western Sahel, polygamy and child marriage are common. [9] Female genital mutilation is also practiced across the Sahel. [9] [10]


The term "Sahel" is borrowed from the Arabic name for the region, الساحلal-sāḥil. Sāḥil literally means "coast, shore", [1] which has been explained as a figurative reference to the southern edge of the vast Sahara. [11] [12] However, such use is unattested in Classical Arabic, and it has been suggested that the word may originally have been derived from the Arabic word سهلsahl "plain" instead. [13]


Early agriculture

Around 4000 BC, the climate of the Sahara and the Sahel started to become drier at an exceedingly fast pace. This climate change caused lakes and rivers to shrink significantly and caused increasing desertification. This, in turn, decreased the amount of land conducive to settlements and caused migrations of farming communities to the more humid climate of West Africa. [14]

Sahelian kingdoms

1905 depiction of ethnic groups in the Sahel Geschichte des Kostums (1905) (14580574910).jpg
1905 depiction of ethnic groups in the Sahel

The Sahelian kingdoms were a series of monarchies centered in the Sahel between the 9th and 18th centuries.[ citation needed ] The wealth of the states came from controlling the trans-Saharan trade routes across the desert, especially with the Islamic world.[ citation needed ] Their power came from having large pack animals like camels and horses that were fast enough to keep a large empire under central control and were also useful in battle.[ citation needed ] All of these empires were quite decentralized with member cities having a great deal of autonomy.[ citation needed ] The first large Sahelian kingdoms emerged after AD 750 and supported several large trading cities in the Niger Bend region, including Timbuktu, Gao and Djenné.[ citation needed ]

The Sahel states were hindered from expanding south into the forest zone of the north Akan state of Bonoman and Yoruba peoples as mounted warriors were all but useless in the forests and the horses and camels could not survive the heat and diseases of the region. [15]

Colonial period

The Western Sahel fell to France in the late 19th century as part of French West Africa. Chad was added in 1900 as part of French Equatorial Africa. The French territories were decolonized in 1960.

The Eastern Sahel (the part in what is now Sudan) did not fall to the European powers but was annexed by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1820. It came under British administration as part of the Sultanate of Egypt in 1914. The Sudanese Sahel became part of independent Sudan in 1956, and South Sudan in turn achieved its independence from Sudan proper in 2011.

Recent droughts

For hundreds of years, the Sahel region has experienced frequent droughts and megadroughts. One megadrought lasted from 1450 to 1700, 250 years. [16] There was a major drought in the Sahel in 1914 caused by annual rains far below average, leading to large-scale famine. From 1951 to 2004, the Sahel experienced some of the most consistent and severe droughts in Africa. [17] The 1960s saw a large increase in rainfall in the region, making the northern drier region more accessible. There was a push, supported by governments, for people to move northwards. When the long drought period from 1968 through 1974 began, grazing quickly became unsustainable and large-scale denuding of the terrain followed. Like the drought in 1914, this led to a large-scale famine, but this time somewhat tempered by international visibility and an outpouring of aid. This catastrophe led to the founding of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

2010 drought

Between June and August 2010, famine struck the Sahel. [18] Niger's crops failed to mature in the heat, 350,000 faced starvation, and 1,200,000 were at risk of famine. [19] In Chad the temperature reached 47.6 °C (117.7 °F) on 22 June in Faya-Largeau, breaking a record set in 1961 at the same location. Niger tied its highest temperature record set in 1998, also on 22 June, at 47.1 °C in Bilma. That record was broken the next day, when Bilma hit 48.2 °C (118.8 °F). The hottest temperature recorded in Sudan was reached on 25 June, at 49.6 °C (121.3 °F) in Dongola, breaking a record set in 1987. [20] Niger reported on 14 July that diarrhoea, starvation, gastroenteritis, malnutrition and respiratory diseases had sickened or killed many children. The new military junta appealed for international food aid and took serious steps to call on overseas help. [21] On 26 July, the heat reached near-record levels over Chad and Niger, [22] and in northern Niger about 20 people reportedly died of dehydration by 27 July.[ citation needed ]

Desertification and soil loss

The Sahel region faces environmental issues that are contributing to global warming. If the change in climate in the Sahel region "is not slowed-down and desertification possibly reversed through sustainable practices and any form of reforestation, it is only a matter of time before" countries like Niger lose their entire landmass to desert due to unchecked unsustainable human practises. [23] :9 Over-farming, over-grazing, over-population of marginal lands, and natural soil erosion, have caused serious desertification of the region. [24] [25] This has affected shelter construction, making it necessary to change the used materials. The Woodless Construction project was introduced in Sahel in 1980 by the Development Workshop, achieving since then a high social impact in the region. [26] A major initiative to combat desertification in the Sahel region via reforestation and other interventions is the Great Green Wall.

Major dust storms are a frequent occurrence as well. During November 2004, a number of major dust storms hit Chad, originating in the Bodélé Depression. [27] This is a common area for dust storms, occurring on average on 100 days every year.[ citation needed ]

On 23 March 2010, a major sandstorm hit Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and inland Sierra Leone. Another struck in southern Algeria, inland Mauritania, Mali and northern Ivory Coast [28] at the same time.

Instability and violence

Terrorist organizations including Boko Haram, Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the Sahel have greatly exacerbated the violence, extremism and instability of the region. [29] [30] In March 2020, the United States sent a special envoy for the Sahel region to combat the rising violence from terrorist groups. [31]

Envoy Peter Pham started his new role on 1 March 2020. [32] He has been the U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa since November 2018.[ citation needed ]

The violent herder–farmer conflicts in Nigeria, Mali, Sudan and other countries in the Sahel region have been exacerbated by climate change, land degradation, and rapid population growth. [33] [34] [35] Droughts and food shortages have been also linked to the Mali War. [36] [37]

On 9 July 2020, the United States raised concerns over growing number of allegations of human rights violations and abuses by state security forces in Sahel. [38] The US response came after Human Rights Watch released documents regarding the same on 1 July. [39] Reports in March 2022 show militants are expanding and spreading out south of the Sahel. [40]

Protected areas

Protected areas in the Sahel include Ferlo Nord Wildlife Reserve in Senegal, Sylvo-Pastoral and Partial Faunal Reserve of the Sahel in Burkina Faso, Ansonga-Ménake Faunal Reserve in Mali, Tadres Reserve in Niger, and Waza National Park in Cameroon. [41]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Burkina Faso</span> Landlocked Sahel country that shares borders with six nations

Burkina Faso is a landlocked Sahel country that shares borders with six nations. It lies between the Sahara desert and the Gulf of Guinea, south of the loop of the Niger River, mostly between latitudes 9° and 15°N, and longitudes 6°W and 3°E. The land is green in the south, with forests and fruit trees, and semi-arid in the north. Most of central Burkina Faso lies on a savanna plateau, 198–305 metres (650–1,001 ft) above sea level, with fields, brush, and scattered trees. Burkina Faso's game preserves – the most important of which are Arly, Nazinga, and W National Park—contain lions, elephants, hippopotamus, monkeys, common warthogs, and antelopes. Previously the endangered painted hunting dog, Lycaon pictus occurred in Burkina Faso, but, although the last sightings were made in Arli National Park, the species is considered extirpated from Burkina Faso.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Chad</span> African country

Chad is one of the 47 landlocked countries in the world and is located in North Central Africa, measuring 1,284,000 square kilometers (495,755 sq mi), nearly twice the size of France and slightly more than three times the size of California. Most of its ethnically and linguistically diverse population lives in the south, with densities ranging from 54 persons per square kilometer in the Logone River basin to 0.1 persons in the northern B.E.T. (Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti) desert region, which itself is larger than France. The capital city of N'Djaména, situated at the confluence of the Chari and Logone Rivers, is cosmopolitan in nature, with a current population in excess of 700,000 people.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Niger</span> Geographic feature of Niger

Niger is a landlocked nation in West Africa located along the border between the Sahara and Sub-Saharan regions. Its geographic coordinates are longitude 16°N and latitude 8°E. Its area is 1.267 million square kilometers, of which 1 266 700 km2 is land and 300 km2 water, making Niger slightly less than twice the size of France.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Niger River</span> Major river in West Africa

The Niger River is the main river of West Africa, extending about 4,180 km (2,600 mi). Its drainage basin is 2,117,700 km2 (817,600 sq mi) in area. Its source is in the Guinea Highlands in southeastern Guinea near the Sierra Leone border. It runs in a crescent shape through Mali, Niger, on the border with Benin and then through Nigeria, discharging through a massive delta, known as the Niger Delta, into the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. The Niger is the third-longest river in Africa, exceeded by the Nile and the Congo River. Its main tributary is the Benue River.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Mauritania</span>

Mauritania, a country in the western region of the continent of Africa, is generally flat, its 1,030,700 square kilometres forming vast, arid plains broken by occasional ridges and clifflike outcroppings. Mauritania is the world’s largest country lying entirely below an altitude of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft). It borders the North Atlantic Ocean, between Senegal and Western Sahara, Mali and Algeria. It is considered part of both the Sahel and the Maghreb. A series of scarps face southwest, longitudinally bisecting these plains in the center of the country. The scarps also separate a series of sandstone plateaus, the highest of which is the Adrar Plateau, reaching an elevation of 500 metres or 1,640 feet. Spring-fed oases lie at the foot of some of the scarps. Isolated peaks, often rich in minerals, rise above the plateaus; the smaller peaks are called Guelbs and the larger ones Kedias. The concentric Guelb er Richat is a prominent feature of the north-central region. Kediet ej Jill, near the city of Zouîrât, has an elevation of 915 metres or 3,002 feet and is the highest peak.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Mali</span> Overview of the geography of Mali

Mali is a landlocked nation in West Africa, located southwest of Algeria, extending south-west from the southern Sahara Desert through the Sahel to the Sudanian savanna zone. Mali's size is 1,240,192 square kilometers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sahara</span> Desert on the African continent

The Sahara is a desert on the African continent. With an area of 9,200,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi), it is the largest hot desert in the world and the third-largest desert overall, smaller only than the deserts of Antarctica and the northern Arctic.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sudan (region)</span> Geographical region to the south of the Sahara

Sudan is the geographical region to the south of the Sahara, stretching from Western Africa to Central and Eastern Africa. The name derives from the Arabic bilād as-sūdān, or "the lands of the Blacks", referring to West Africa and northern Central Africa.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gao</span> Urban commune and town in Mali

Gao, or Gawgaw/Kawkaw, is a city in Mali and the capital of the Gao Region. The city is located on the River Niger, 320 km (200 mi) east-southeast of Timbuktu on the left bank at the junction with the Tilemsi valley.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sahel drought</span>

The Sahel region of Africa has long experienced a series of historic droughts, dating back to at least the 17th century. The Sahel region is a climate zone sandwiched between the Sudanian Savanna to the south and the Sahara desert to the north, across West and Central Africa. While the frequency of drought in the region is thought to have increased from the end of the 19th century, three long droughts have had dramatic environmental and societal effects upon the Sahel nations. Famine followed severe droughts in the 1910s, the 1940s, and the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, although a partial recovery occurred from 1975-80. The most recent drought occurred in 2012.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lake Débo</span> Body of water

Lake Débo is a lake in the central part of Mali, formed by the seasonal flooding of the Niger River basin. It is in the Inner Niger Delta of the Niger River. During high water stages of the river, the delta formed by lakes, creeks, and backwaters form part of Lake Débo. The inner delta has many wide channels, which are shallow and flooded marshes; this delta extends over a length of 320 kilometres with a width of 80 km (50 mi). Lake Débo during high flow season, is at a distance of 80 km (50 mi) from Mopti on its upstream, on the southern end and 240 km (150 mi) from Timbuktu at its downstream, on the north-eastern end. It is the largest of many such seasonal wetlands and lakes which form the Inner Niger Delta, and the largest lake within Mali. Its size is largely reduced during the dry season of September to March. The existence of this lake called the "Great Lake" in the inner delta of Niger River between Jenne and Timbuktu in Mali has been established after extensive study of maps of the region extending over a period from 1000 to 1900 AD; 400 maps were studied for the period.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wildlife of Niger</span>

The wildlife of Niger is composed of its flora and fauna. The wildlife protected areas in the country total about 8.5 million hectares, which is 6.6% of the land area of the country, a figure which is expected to eventually reach the 11% percent target fixed by the IUCN with addition of more areas under the reserve category. The dama gazelle has become a national symbol. Under the Hausa name meyna or ménas the dama appears on the badge of the Niger national football team, who are popularly called the Ménas.

The wildlife of Mali, composed of its flora and fauna, is widely varying from the Saharan desert zone to the Sahelian east–west zone, to Mali, a landlocked francophone country in North Africa; large swathes of Mali remain unpopulated but has three sub-equal vegetation zones; the country has Sahara Desert in the north, the Niger River Basin at its center and the Senegal River on the south.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">South Saharan steppe and woodlands</span> South Sahara desert ecoregion

The South Saharan steppe and woodlands, also known as the South Sahara desert, is a deserts and xeric shrublands ecoregion of northern Africa. This band is a transitional region between the Sahara's very arid center to the north, and the wetter Sahelian Acacia savanna ecoregion to the south. In pre-modern times, the grasslands were grazed by migratory gazelles and other ungulates after the rainfalls. More recently, over-grazing by domestic livestock have degraded the territory. Despite the name of the ecoregion, there are few 'woodlands' in the area; those that exist are generally acacia and shrubs along rivers and in wadis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Termit Massif Reserve</span> Nature reserve in the southeast of Niger

The Termit Massif Total Reserve is a nature reserve in the southeast of Niger which was established in January 1962. In March 2012, a national nature and cultural reserve was established covering an area of 100,000 square kilometres (39,000 sq mi), including the entire area of the Termit Massif and Tin Toumma desert, making it the largest single protected area in Africa. The area provides habitat for many critically endangered species. Prominent among them is the addax antelope, which is categorized under the IUCN Red List as one of the rarest and most endangered species in the world; about 300 of them are reported in the reserve. A conservation effort has been launched by the Government of Niger in collaboration with many international conservation agencies. The reserve has also been declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site for the biodiversity value of the Termit Massif and surrounding Sahara Desert and for the cultural value of its archaeological sites.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">West African giraffe</span>

The West African giraffe, Niger giraffe or Nigerien giraffe is a subspecies of the giraffe distinguished by its light colored spots. It is found in the Sahel of West Africa.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">2010 Sahel famine</span> Famine affecting Africas Sahel & Senegal river area

A large-scale, drought-induced famine occurred in Africa's Sahel region and many parts of the neighbouring Sénégal River Area from February to August 2010. It is one of many famines to have hit the region in recent times.

Lazaret is a northern suburb of Niamey, Niger. It is best known historically for its refugee camp with many Tuareg people. The camp became the largest in the Sahel during the extreme drought of 1973-1975.

2012 had a very severe drought in the Sahel, the semiarid region of Africa that lies between the Sahara and the savannas. Countries included in this region are Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. Droughts in the Sahel occur quite often and tend to reduce the already meager water supply and stress the economies of developing countries in that region.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">West Sudanian savanna</span> Tropical savanna ecoregion across Western Africa

The West Sudanian savanna is a tropical savanna ecoregion that extends across West Africa.


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Further reading