Timbuktu. Djenné. Koumbi Saleh. For centuries, the Sahel boasted some of
Africa's most influential civilizations. Anarrow band of semi-arid land south of the
Sahara, the Sahel attracted both Arabs looking for gold from Sudan and Europeans
looking for slaves from West Africa. The two influences merged with native ones,
creating a culturally complex area. The Sahel is widely
French-speaking, Islamic and takes its name ("shore") from Arabic.
But the region, one of the poorest and most
environmentally damaged places on earth, has deep troubles. In the 1970s, the Sahel
captured international attention when drought and famine killed nearly 200,000
people. Though conditions have since improved, it has yet to shake a vicious cycle
of soil erosion, insufficient irrigation, deforestation, overpopulation,
desertification and drought. Parts of the region -- like Mali's legendary Timbuktu -- are now more Sahara than Sahel.
As the environment has suffered, the scramble for income has intensified. Ethnic lines that divided
many traditional occupations -- herders and farmers -- have blurred, often sparking
bloodshed. Instead of sticking to the land, rural workers are now heading for the cities.
Dakar (Senegal), Ougadougou (Burkina Faso), Niamey (Niger) and Bamako (Mali)
now hold about 25 percent of the Sahel's population and each year grow by another five
percent. Open sewers are common, and electricity, running water and trash
collection all too infrequent.
To ease the strain, the Sahel's land must be restored,
international development agencies believe. Ambitious
tree-planting and irrigation projects dot the Sahel, fueling hopes. Will they succeed? For now, the answer remains in doubt.