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A Race to Adapt:
The Climate Crisis in the Sahel

A Chadian girl’s daily journey to collect water illustrates how the climate crisis is affecting her community.

The Central Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, a sub-region in West and Central Africa that includes six countries, is at the frontline of the global climate crisis. Temperatures have increased significantly in recent decades and are projected to rise another 3-6 degrees by the end of the 21st century unless urgent action is taken.1

Extreme poverty, conflict, the exploitation of natural resources and economic dependence on agriculture and pastoralism make the Sahel particularly susceptible to climate change. Rising temperatures can lead to increased conflict, displacement, and food shortages, making life difficult for already-vulnerable populations. In 2021, almost 29 million Sahelians are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance, 5 million more people than the previous year.2

Follow the journey of 12-year-old Zara* in western Chad as she walks 10 kilometers (roughly 6 miles) each day to collect water for her family as they adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

Zara and her family were forced to relocate a few years ago after a severe drought in Chad’s Lac province. Since 2008, almost 800,000 people have been displaced in Chad due to climate-related disasters. Many more are using migration as an adaptation strategy.

In Zara’s village, the nearest source of water is 5 kilometers away. On average, women in rural Africa walk 6 kilometers a day to collect water, though for some the distance is much longer.3

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As she starts her journey for water, Zara passes a dried up river bed. In Chad, frequent droughts have resulted in dwindling supplies of water. Floods have also become more common since the 1990s as dry, sandy lands are unable to absorb rainfall.

Since 2008, nearly 7 million people in Chad have been affected by droughts and floods.4 These shocks displace communities, destroy livelihoods and undermine economic development. In 2020 alone, 20 out of 23 provinces in Chad were impacted by floods.5

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After walking one kilometer, Zara passes farmland that has been trampled by the livestock of pastoralists forced to migrate south before crops could be harvested. Changing weather patterns and decreased availability of resources have disrupted traditional migration routes for pastoralists. More frequent and extreme weather events also increase food insecurity and malnutrition by destroying land, livestock, crops and food supplies.

In 2021, more than one million people in Chad are struggling with crisis levels of food insecurity and almost three million more are estimated to be under stress. 6

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After walking for 1.5 hours through the difficult terrain, Zara reaches the borehole. She fills her container with 15 litres of water (weighing roughly 15 kilograms) and prepares for the 5 kilometer journey back home. Zara is tired but has no time to rest as she needs to hurry back to avoid missing school.

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“The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.”
– United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres

Climate change is an existential threat to humanity. Every day we witness its impact on the world’s most vulnerable people, such as girls like Zara, her family, and the communities of farmers and pastoralists she passes along her journey.

Without ambitious action to help countries and communities adapt to climate change, the humanitarian toll will increase exponentially. Humanitarian assistance can help address the impacts of climate-related emergencies, but a massive increase in global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change and reduce the risk of disasters is critical to contain the suffering.

Follow the links below to add your voice to the global campaign for #TheHumanRace and get inspired by stories of how communities around the world are taking action to adapt to the climate crisis.

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Since 2008, 17.1 million people have been newly displaced in Burkina Faso,Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria. In all six countries, rapid-onset disasters such as floods and increasing violence have forced people to move, either temporarily or permanently.1

Heavy rains in 2012 triggered extensive flooding, displacing millions across the region. As climate change continues to exacerbate weather variability, these types of ‘once in a century’ weather events will become more frequent.

1Climate, Peace and Security Fact Sheet Sahel

Climate-linked disasters have become more frequent and catastrophic in recent years and they are projected to get worse. In the 2010s, though there were fewer events, more people were affected, suggesting that the impacts of individual events have gotten worse.

Droughts and floods in the Sahel since the 1960s

Data Source: CRED EM-DAT database

Since 2008, over 60 million people have been affected by droughts, floods and storms in the Sahel.

The number of people affected by droughts and floods since 2014

Data Source: CRED EM-DAT database

Climate shocks and high food prices have deepened people’s vulnerability and challenged their access to food across the Sahel in recent years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that agricultural yields will fall by 20% per decade by the end of the 21st century in some parts of the Sahel.1 These declines in crop productivity are linked to rising temperatures and changes in precipitation.

In 2020, over 43 million people in the six Sahelien countries are experiencing phase 2 (stressed) food insecurity and nearly 18 million people are experiencing phase 3+ (crisis/emergency) food insecurity. These numbers are projected to increase if no mitigating action is taken.

Population in IPC 3+

Data source: Cadre Harmonise

1IPCC ; OCHA - The Sahel in the midst of climate change, March 2020

More frequent climate shocks can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and create conditions in which any small shock can lead to humanitarian emergencies. To make matters worse, the six Sahelien countries being explored in this data story are among the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, though their impact on climate change has been among the lowest.

In addition to experiencing some of the worst effects of climate change, these countries are also the least prepared to deal with its grave and worsening consequences.

Climate change vulnerability & readiness and CO2 emissions by country:

Data source: ND-GAIN Country Index (June 2021), World Bank: World Development Indicators (2018)