The Making of the Sub-Saharan Wasteland

How to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help people starve.

On the southern rim of the biggest desert on earth, following its contours around a ninth of the planet from the Atlantic to the Nile, an immense tract of land known as the Sahel—2.5 million miles square, a fifth of all Africa—is slipping out of human use. Intensely hot and eternally parched for rain, it was never much good at sustaining life; its people are among the poorest in the world. Now, its thin blanket of coarse grass and thorny bush is giving way to sterile sand. Live dunes, deadly killers of every growing thing, are forming in the midst of old grazing lands and on the very banks of flowing rivers. For mile after mile, nothing is left to show where the great Sahara ends and the Sahel begins.

It is a calamity of biblical dimensions, but God doesn't really come into it. The fact that several hundred thousand people and some 20 million head of livestock have starved to death in the Sahel lately after five terrible years of drought is nothing new. Terrible droughts have afflicted this region time and again. One, which lasted seven years, occurred exactly a century ago. The climate, hint though it may of celestial wrath, doesn't appear to have taken a lasting turn for the worse since about 3000 B.C. The little deserts emerging from a ruined veil of green are not always or necessarily contiguous to the big one above. Nor is there any truth to the legend of a colossal Sahara advancing inexorably for reasons men cannot fathom. Men can fathom the reasons, all right. They can even force the desert back, provided they can find the resolve to make sensible use of all the money now flooding into the stricken Sahel. Alas, that resolve is not so easily come by.

Horrifying pictures of skeletal children and desiccated cows first appeared in the press a year or so ago, but people whose work is the dispensation of aid have known about the Sahel for quite a while. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year have in fact been pumped into the region since colonies became independent in the late 1950s. The results make an unusually interesting case study, considering all the aid given, and taken, in the name of development the world over.

Africans have less meat to eat than anybody else in the world. They are spending hard currency—in short supply when they have it at all—to import food of any kind for a continent with one of the world's highest birthrates. Properly run, the Sahel should be able to raise enough beef on the hoof for half this hungry continent. Yet after almost fifteen years of bountiful international aid and more than bountiful advice, the Sahel is closer than ever to becoming a wasteland.

Statistics are too unreliable to tell us precisely how much of the Sahel is hopelessly desertified already. The Chad government says half its enormous country is gone. Mauritania's Fifth and Sixth Regions, the most populated, are adrift in loose sand. The fertile marshlands of Senegal's Niayes Region, dotted with moving dunes now are smothering in it. Ecologists speak of desert encroachment elsewhere running to twenty and thirty miles a year. The U.S. Agency for International Development thinks the whole region has lost a quarter of a million square miles in the past half century.

It would be nice to blame this on something we can do nothing about, such as the climate. Sensational headlines have indeed suggested a sinister climatic change, a possible southward shift in the earth's monsoon rain belt leaving new deserts be­hind not just in the Sahel, but all along the same drought-blasted parallel from Brazil to India to China. Even if climatologists were sure of this theory, and they aren't, it would simply add to rather than explain the Sahelians' troubles. Desertification was pinching their lives long before the rains failed here in 1968. The Sahelians have brought it upon themselves; and we—the rich, industrialized, superbly skilled, and technically superior we—have in effect been egging them on.

It is hard to say just who deserves what prominence in this elaborate mosaic of human guilt. The daily damage is naturally done by the people trying to force a living out of their godforsaken land: there are about 22 million in the largely Sahelian West African states of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, Chad; and twice as many in a dozen states with smaller pockets of Sahelian territory, including Nigeria, Gambia, Cameroon, Ghana, Togo, Dahomey, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan. But people struggling to stay alive amid incredible hardships cannot be judged too harshly. The worst offenders are those high above and far away. They include the politicians who preside over these states' governments. And they include a long list of foreign benefactors—from the United Nations and the World Bank to the United States and Canada, France, Germany, and other Common Market members, Scandinavia, the Arab oil states, the People's Republic of China—who, in try­ing to deliver these nomads and their herds from thirst, have further exposed them to hunger.

This is not to belittle the magnificent rescue operation mounted last summer by most of these do­nors (the Arabs and Chinese were not among them), who rushed more than half a million tons of food to starving Sahelians in the nick of time. The cost, over $175 million, was barely a measure of the effort going into this display of international solidarity and compassion. But apart from keeping a lot of Sahelians alive last year, it hasn't changed the situation. The Sahelians need almost twice as much emergency food aid this year, and there is no telling about next year. The Sahel is still heading straight for a breakdown; one more drought like this and it could be done for.

It came pretty close this time. The worst was supposedly over when I spent six weeks in the West African Sahel last autumn. Yet wherever I went, traveling by plane, Land Rover, and bush taxi for thousands of miles from the west coast of Mauritania and Senegal inland to Bamako, Ouagadougou, and Niamey, and north to Agadez and Gao on the threshold of the Grand Sahara, the wreckage was distressingly evident. After the first day, I stopped counting the skeletons of cows, donkeys, and camels strewn by the wayside, their bones long since picked clean by vultures. Nor could I keep track of the dead and dying trees bowed in haunting arches of lifeless gray over acre upon acre of the empty bush. Here and there, far off on the cracked, crumbling land, l saw a few camels and goats; but not for hundreds of miles at a stretch did I see a cow. Dozens of villages I passed were abandoned, the doors of their huts ajar, their wells dried up or tainted with rotting animal carcasses. In those still inhabited, farmers told me of having eaten their millet seed before they could plant it, or sharing meager government food rations with the few goats they had left: “If they go, it's finished,” one said.

Once well away from the capitals, nearly every village was encircled by nomad refugee tents. (The only countries where I saw a nomad in the capital were Mauritania, whose population is 80 percent nomadic, and Niger, where tourists were stopped in their tracks at the sight of a veiled and be­daggered Tuareg warrior striding across the hotel lobby.) The nomads were in deplorable physical condition and a worse state of mental shock. “They are dazed, stupefied, some go crazy,” a Mauritanian official explained. “They simply can't take in the fact that their herds have been wiped out overnight.”

There were 9000 nomad refugees in Mederdra, Mauritania, when I passed through, more than doubling the population of a settlement that used to be a green oasis, half-buried in sand now. Nearly all had lost one or more children, a parent, aged relatives. Several I met were the sole survivors of large families. A handful had managed to save half a dozen sheep or goats from herds once a hundred times bigger. Most had lost that and everything else but the rags on their backs. Bit by bit, on their exhausting march toward safety, they had been forced to abandon the last of their cherished possessions: rugs, blankets, precious stores of mint tea and salt, their gay and handsome Moorish tents.

So weakened was the will even to live, I was told, that older people were turning to suicide. Though enough emergency grain from foreign relief shipments was getting through to assure their survival while I was there—I'm not sure if it still is—they were ridden with scurvy, beriberi, ma­rasmus, tuberculosis, viral hepatitis. Scores of children whose resistance was lowered by under­ nourishment were dying of measles and whooping cough, the schoolmaster said; every child in Mederdra was suffering from vitamin deficiencies.

Mederdra was not unique. Mauritania, hardest hit by drought and famine of all the Sahelian states, has had practically no harvest at all for two years now, and has only 600,000 cattle left out of 2.5 million. “We are a nation on the dole,” the governor of the Sixth Region told me in Rosso, the regional capital.

Devoutly religious, the Moors were making it all more bearable by sharing what little food they had. “No good Moslem has the right to eat while his neighbor is hungry,” explained the Mederdra schoolmaster, who had taken in twenty-six distant nomad relatives himself (paying for food for all of them on his slender salary; and letting them camp in and around the tent he had to call home for lack of the money to rent a modest house). Not one of the relatively privileged Moors I met was free of such burdens. “There are no more rich and poor here—we're all indigent,” said the prefect of R'Kiz, who was feeding twenty refugees daily at his own table. But the treatment was less generous elsewhere.

The military government of Mali had banned all visitors from the refugee camps when I got to Gao, after distressing stories had filtered out about camp conditions. Relief workers, no longer permitted to enter themselves, told me of four hundred children, all of whose parents had died, living alone in a cluster of tents. In one of the tents, seven children had squatted for days around the body of their dead mother, waiting for her to “wake up.” In another, a baby kept sucking at her dead mother's breast. In Bourem, on the road from Gao to Timbuktu, nomad refugees were dying like flies.

Conditions were better in Niger, but not that much. More solicitous than Mali about the nomads' welfare, the Niger government was also much less nervous about inquisitive foreigners. No sooner did President Diori Hamani grasp the enormity of the human devastation than he begged the Red Cross to handle it. Under the direction of two young and wonderfully efficient Scandinavian volunteers, the Red Cross had long since fattened up starving children in its care when I reached the country—mostly by bundling them off every morning to be fed milk and chocolate behind closed doors. But if grown-ups in the camps were no longer dying at the rate of twenty and thirty a day, they were still on near-starvation rations. The Red Cross had no more food than that for the camps, and none at all for thousands too far away to reach a camp, or too frightened to set foot in one. Those I saw myself, in western Niger and northern Agades, bore all the familiar marks of hunger and privation.

There is no way of knowing how many have died so far, in spite of international intervention. The toll is probably highest in Ethiopia, where at least 100,000 are believed to have perished before the government so much as mentioned that anything odd was going on in the interior. But it could run to hundreds of thousands in the West African Sahel as well. Mortality would have been lower in both places, at any rate, if the West African governments hadn't waited six months, and Ethiopia's a full year, to act on early disaster warnings from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

When the warning came in September 1972, the monsoon rains had failed for four years in a row nearly everywhere, right across these African latitudes and beyond. The southern Sahelian farm­ lands got less than half their usual share of rain. The hotter and drier rangelands closer to the Sahara were hit harder, dropping from a few miserable inches of yearly rainfall to almost none. Where any grass came up at all, it couldn't conceivably feed some 60 million head of Sahelian livestock. Nor, with grain shortfalls of 30 percent in Upper Volta, 50 percent in Mali, Niger, and Senegal, 85 percent in Mauritania, could southern crops possibly feed the human population.

Called upon so desperately late in the day to provide over 600,000 tons of emergency grain—this at a time when Soviet Russia had bought up a quarter of the American wheat crop and U.S. harbors were crammed with cargo ships loading for Russian ports—the donor-states worked wonders. The United States contributed 256,000 tons of cereals, the Common Market 111,000, France 70,000, smaller donors enough to make up the difference. The main lifeline started in Kansas, got through overcrowded American ports, and reached the West African coast in record time. The ports there were few: Nouakchott (Mauritania), Dakar (Senegal), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Tema (Ghana), Cotonou (Dahomey); and not many were well equipped. Moving shipments inland to landlocked states such as Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, and Chad was arduous. Mauritania has less than a hundred miles of paved road in a territory of 398,000 square miles, while Mali is the only one of the landlocked states with rail outlets to the sea. At this stage the Sahelian governments pitched in themselves, or most did, to move the grain out into the bush. But it came too late to save everybody, and would have been too late for a good many if an international airlift had not been hastily organized to drop grain where starvation was only a few days, or hours, away.

About 25,000 tons of food were dropped by air­ lift, at a cost of around fifty million dollars. The FAO chartered some planes, and others were provided by the Belgians, West Germans, French, British, Dutch, Spanish, Canadians, Norwegians, Ghanaians, Libyans, Russians, and Americans. The U.S. Air Force was especially gallant, flying three and four loads a day and landing its clumsy Hercules workhorse on strips no other pilots would touch. W hen I flew with the Americans on one of their last trips to Nema, in eastern Mauritania, the pilot put his Hercules down on a pockmarked and pocket-sized landing strip with the light grace of a Piper Cub.            ·

The man was rare, among the hundreds I talked with in these countries, who saw anything but blind destiny behind the dreadful scourge visited upon him. Yet the worst of this tragedy has been the blindness of man himself.

Those who actually live in the Sahel are not generally aware of doing anything wrong. They certainly understand one of its iron laws: In a land where nature is extraordinarily parsimonious, they are extraordinarily frugal. You may travel from one end of it to the other without ceasing to wonder at their frugality, let alone their patience and physical endurance. Nothing is wasted: not a stick or dead branch, blade of grass, stalk of grain, drop of water. I saw women walking ten miles under a scorching sun to gather an armful of firewood or collect tiny prickly balls of cram-cram, a kind of wild oat, for the family's supper. In Mali's Dogon country, I saw millet planted in savagely eroded gullies on plots of topsoil barely a few yards square, laboriously fenced in with straw matting to ward off goats and windblown sand. All morning long, men walked back and forth to a shallow pool of rainwater about a hundred yards away, carrying water in a calabash the size of a soup tureen to sprinkle over the wilting shoots, one cupped handful at a time.

All the same, they are overtaxing a region on peculiarly precarious terms with the elements, and squandering what little it has to offer. Lying roughly between the fourteenth and eighteenth parallels above the Equator, the Sahel rarely gets more than thirty-five inches of rain a year at its southernmost point, tapering off to an inch or two on approaching the Sahara. Millet and sorghum will grow south of the fourteen-inch rainfall line. Little, if anything, will grow north of the line, except hardy acacia and tamarisk trees, and prairie grasses for grazing livestock. Nowhere does the grazing last long enough to support a herd the year round. Since most of the rain falls between late June and early October, the rest of the year must be gotten through at baking temperatures that shoot past 130 degrees before relief comes with the next rainy season. During those searing days, the relentless harmattan wind blows from the north, carrying off the dry topsoil. The rains, when they come, are torrential, and more topsoil swirls away in a sea of yellow mud.

Desert folklore to the contrary, nomads are not incurable romantics who wander at random. Their unending trek through the bush in quest of forage for great herds of camels, cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats is really a marvelously intricate design for living. Whether the nomads move in a small hundred-mile circle or fan out for thousands of miles across several national borders, they know exactly where they are sup­posed to go, and how long they are expected to linger in each place. Tribal chiefs charted the routes centuries ago, and no nomad can break ranks without regretting it.

Desert folklore also to the contrary, though, nomads are not infallibly wise about their land, as donor-states have learned to their sorrow. Long be­fore galloping desertification set in about a decade ago, the Sahel was showing brutal signs of wear and tear. The ominous live dunes turning up now in the great bend of the Niger River—a good three hundred miles south of where a live dune has any climatic reason to be—didn't get there simply because the rains have failed of late for five years running. They were invited there by soil trampled to death by the nomads' cattle, year after year, on their way to drink at the river's edge.

Other time-honored nomad practices include overgrazing by larger herds than the land can sup­port; lopping acacia branches to round out the herds' diet; chopping down any trees at hand for firewood; and, in every dry season, setting the whole Sahel ablaze by lighting bush fires absent­ mindedly or deliberately, to hunt fleeing desert rats. While all this has been going on a long while, nature had her own rude ways of keeping it in check until recently. Every now and then, say once in twenty or thirty years, a drought would come along to cut down the human and animal population, giving trees and grass a chance to recover; and in between, the balance was kept by early death. The most common human diseases in the Sahel are smallpox, leprosy, trachoma, tuberculosis, syphilis, severe and often fatal measles, sleeping sickness, malaria, and a variety of internal parasites. What with that and chronic malnutrition, one in every seven Sahelian babies dies before it is a year old, half die before they are ten, and few live to see forty. The herds that are the nomads' sole sustenance are no better off. Underfed Sahelian cows frequently miscarry, and seldom calve more than once every other year; half the calves die of hunger or disease in their first year; and two or three in every ten survivors are likely to die off each year thereafter.

This is plainly a wretched sort of ecological balance, and hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into upsetting it since development aid began. On the request of more or less indigent Sahel governments, whose populations have average incomes of sixty to ninety dollars a year, the donor-states have done their best to lengthen the life-span of man and beast alike: with health schemes, education schemes, mass vaccinations against smallpox, measles, sleeping sickness, and cattle rinderpest. They have also spent a fortune on what is supposed to be the cure for anything and everything ailing this sickly region: more water. The last operation in particular has been brilliantly successful, but the patient is reeling.

Deep down beneath layers of rock, clay, and sand, the Sahel and Sahara both are awash in water. A subterranean lake half a million miles square underlies the eastern end of the desert from Libya to Chad, and the Grand Sahara itself sits astride a still larger underground body of water known as Savourin's Sea. Most of the water is too far down to be reached by a manual well-digger. But mechanical rigs can tap it at one or two thou­ sand feet. By now the Sahel is crisscrossed with thousands of deep boreholes, drilled at a cost of between $20,000 to $200,000 apiece. Whether by pump or natural artesian pressure, water gushes up in such prodigal abundance that ten thousand head of cattle at a time can drink their fill.

The trouble is that wherever the Sahel has suddenly produced more than enough for the cattle to drink, they have ended up with nothing to eat. Few sights were more appalling, at the height of the drought last summer, than the thousands upon thousands of dead and dying cows clustered around Sahelian boreholes. Indescribably emaciated, the dying would stagger away from the water with bloated bellies and struggle to fight free of the churned mud at the water's edge until they keeled over. As far as the horizon and be­ yond, the earth was as bare and bleak as a bad dream. Drought alone didn't do that: they did.

What 20 million or more cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and camels have mostly died of since this grim drought set in is hunger, not thirst. Al­though many would have died anyway, the tragedy was compounded by a fierce struggle for too little food among Sahelian herds increased by then to vast numbers. Carried away by the promise of unlimited water, nomads forgot about the Sahel's all too limited forage. Timeless rules, apportioning just so many cattle to graze for just so many days within a cow's walking distance of just so much water in traditional wells, were brushed aside. Enormous herds, converging upon the new bore­holes from hundreds of miles away, so ravaged the surrounding land by trampling and overgrazing that each borehole quickly became the center of its own little desert forty or fifty miles square.

As the herds kept multiplying, they competed more and more ravenously for the last inch of forage. Yet even when the competition led to ferocious tribal warfare—in 1969 the Mali government had to send troops to break up a particularly violent clash between Tuaregs and Fulanis north of Mopti—the nomads kept breeding and buying more and more cattle. In Senegal, soon after boreholes came into fashion around 1960, the number of cows, sheep, and goats rose in just two years from 4 million to 5 million. In Mali, during the five years before 1960, the increase had been only 800,000. Over the next ten years the total shot up another 5 million to 16 million, more than three animals for every Malien man, woman, and child.

Nobody knows what lasting harm has come to the rangelands in these five years. Accustomed to the harshest weather, much of the vegetative cover may spring back to life when the rains finally come, if not this summer then next. But where starving herds have torn it out, roots and all, before seeds could form, it may not. The stomachs of four in every five cows reaching slaughterhouses last summer showed they had literally eaten in to the ground, ingesting sand. The cover will almost surely not spring back to life where piratical winds carry off four or five tons of topsoil an acre. Nor is there much hope where trampling hooves have pounded it to dust. There is still less hope of groundwater tables ever rising again to their old levels.

Crop losses have been all the more shattering because nomads who used to have meat and milk no longer have anything but grain to rely on. The West African Sahel states, through the secretary of their Inter-Regional Drought Committee, Antoine Dakouré, have claimed they need 1,230,000 tons of emergency grain to tide them over until next October's harvest. Allowances must always be made for the impetuous M. Dakouré, who electrified reporters in Paris last January by asserting more flatly than accurately that five in every seven babies had already died in some parts of the Sahel, and 200,000 grown­ ups were going to follow suit in the next few weeks. Even so, donor-states think that about 900,000 tons of grain are required.

Livestock losses have cut these countries' foreign earnings in half; they can't possibly buy the grain they need. Nor is it so readily given away in this of all years. Russian inroads on last year's crops have depleted American grain stocks to the lowest level since the war. Exceptional appeals for relief from all corners of the globe have so reduced sup­plies everywhere else that the reserves of all grain­ exporting countries combined, enough to feed the world for fifty-one days in 1971, would last only twenty-nine days in 1974. This alone has forced worldwide wheat prices up by 300 percent; and that is nothing compared to the prices in store as the energy crisis hits the cost of fertilizer and ship­ping. There is little doubt that many more Sahelians will starve to death if more grain is not forth­ coming. It is hard to think the world will let that happen. But it isn't so easy, either, to imagine the world keeping much or most of the Sahel on the dole forever. As far as the nomads go, that might well be the prospect.

The nomads are still there, in miserable tent camps strung across the Sahel, almost all remote from the nearest capital. Most of the camp inmates are women and children. Their menfolk died with the last of the cattle they tried to save, by staying behind to wait for rain, or pressing too far southward into the sleeping-sickness belt in search of forage. They are penniless, the haughtiest of Tuaregs among them reduced to begging. Their herds have been practically wiped out: If livestock mortality has run to about 40 percent for the whole Sahel, it has been closer to 90 and 100 per­ cent in the nomads' drier rangelands. So weakened are the surviving bulls and so decimated the female ranks—two in every three cows going to slaughter in Niamey, Niger, last year were pregnant—that it will probably take eight or ten years to rebuild the herds. Meanwhile, the nomads face an incomparably blacker future than the farmers, whose crops are bound to grow again next summer or the one after. In fact, they would appear to have no future at all.

Never, when asked, do these nomads fail to say that their old way of life is finished. “No more paradise,” a wonderfully vibrant and handsome Tuareg widow told me over ritual glasses of mint tea in her Niamey refugee tent. “Just give us something else to do and we'll do it.” The Grand Marabout of Timbuktu, a tiny shriveled sage clearly held in awe by the dozen or so other Tuaregs crowding into the tent to meet us, nodded gravely. So did they. Yet they all admitted, when pressed, that every cent they could beg or borrow was going into a kitty to buy and build up new herds. Not one appeared to think the size of their old herds might have contributed in any way to the agonies they had just gone through. “Given a chance,” said a volunteer relief worker passing all his days and most of his nights among them, “they'd go right ahead and do the same thing all over again.”  Whether they continue as they have will depend, then, on whether, through pity, inertia, or dark design, their governments and rich foreign friends let them.

I met a number of foreign development experts traveling around the Sahel—you can scarcely turn around there nowadays without bumping into one—who told me privately that, in effect, they are writing off the nomads and their rangelands. They seldom said it in so many words, not being given to simple declarative sentences. But what they were evidently trying to tell me was that there just isn't enough talent and patience, let alone money, lying around to get out of this impossible situation. Since such situations cannot easily be ignored in our day and age (the Emperor of Ethiopia's day and age is something else again), a decent effort to relieve human misery obviously has to be made. Accordingly, these experts suggest keeping the nomads on the dole until they can pick up a few cows and goats, and then turning them loose in the bush again, fortified by the standard aid treatment for people in their condition: vaccinations and mobile health units, powdered milk for the children, pilot projects for cutting hay or storing rainwater, even more boreholes if that will keep them happy and off the politicians' backs. When they have “destroyed their only means of survival in the struggle to survive,” as a U.N. Development Program official in Dakar put it to me bitterly, nature will come up with the Final Solution.

This may well be how it all ends, but it doesn't absolutely have to be. There is no need for a million-dollar MIT computer study, one of U.S. AID's more exotic contributions, to figure out how the Sahel can be turned into a paying proposition. One way came to light in infrared photographs taken by satellite last year, showing a bright-green patch in western Niger surrounded by sandy rubble. It turned out to be a 250,000-acre cattle ranch, where grass and trees have been restored to sturdy health with nothing more than strictly rotated grazing and a fence to keep out all four­legged intruders, especially goats, who nibble to the roots and will eat anything in sight.

Ranches like this, which support only about 10,000 cattle, are fine for whoever happens to own one but not necessarily for everybody else. They could even be dangerous, if held up as an example to prove that nomads ought to stop roaming around and settle down, as their governments have been telling them to do for years (whether the better to help them or to keep an eye on them is an open question). If all the nomads really did settle down, their delicately balanced rangelands would go to pieces altogether in short order. Actually, the most ingenious and efficient way to make the best of these lands was worked out by their own ancestors. They could hardly do better, provided the lesson of that Niger ranch is driven home to them.

The real turnaround in the Sahel would lie in a combination of ancient nomadic practices and modern range management. The nomads would keep on the move with the seasons, as always. But their herds would be much smaller, better fed and cared for. Grazing would be allocated by new and still more inflexible rules. Water, whether in wells or boreholes, would be spaced out to service only the cattle allowed to graze in the vicinity, and boreholes would be shut down in alternating years to give the pasture a rest. Healthier cows would calve two or three times oftener, and calves would be sold off at the age of one or two years instead of the prevailing seven or eight, to relieve pressure on grazing lands. Once sold, they would go on to feedlots where, fattened on peanutseed or cotton­seed cake grown by southern farmers, they could be brought up to a weight of eight or nine hundred pounds within two years instead of the present six. Since the feedlots would be handy to slaughterhouses, the cattle would no longer lose most of that weight again by trekking as far as fifteen hundred miles to market.

All kinds of improvements might be written into this idealistic scenario: man-made catchments to store rainwater, little vegetable plots around them, simple storage facilities for millet in the event of drought, cut and stored fodder for the herds against the same eventuality. To save what is left of the grazing lands, trees would obviously have to be replanted in the millions; and to save these tender young saplings as well as the grazing lands, the goals would have to go. Almost any body in the aid game would tell you to stop right there.

The least picky about food of any animal, and the closest by far to being indestructible, goats are the poor man's cows here as everywhere. Few Sahelian politicians have the courage to suggest getting rid of them. (President Leopold Senghor of Senegal has tried to for six years and gotten nowhere.) This alone could wreck almost any plans for the Sahel, and it is a relatively minor obstacle.

It shouldn't be impossible to persuade nomad tribal chiefs of the need to do what in effect they have always done, only better. Persuade is the operative word, the nomad being rare who does anything an alien government orders him to do. But the chances of persuasion are none too good where the sides are barely on speaking terms. Mauritania, with its mostly nomadic million-odd inhabitants, doesn't have this problem, and Niger is trying to overcome it. Elsewhere, though, relations are no better than might be expected between “white” nomads of Mediterranean stock accustomed for centuries to be overlords, and their former black slaves, the new rulers of liberated Africa.

Faced with these and countless other crushing problems, Sahelian governments have been inclined to feel that it will  all go away if they can only get their hands on enough money. At their drought conference in Ouagadougou last September, the six West African states started out by asking for an extra $10 billion. They have since come down to about $1 billion, double the present amount of aid, and will probably get it. Western donors may be running out of spare wheat but aren't yet dead to all sentiment. Apart from these same old benefactors, Senegal for one will be getting $50 million from the People's Republic of China, while Mauritania has been promised $11 million from Kuwait, $20 million from Saudi Arabia, and $22 million from Libya.

None of the Arab money appears to have been earmarked for wheat purchases. Nor is anyone quite sure about what is actually going to be done with the Arabs' or any other dollars. The Sahel governments simply accept the donations, in an atmosphere of reciprocal and benevolent confusion.

Yet when one U.S. AID mission arrived last spring with $20 million to spend on the spot, the projects that were down on paper and worth doing added up to only half that amount.

Not that these countries can't find something to do with the money: They need practically everything. But wherever it ends up, it isn't going into a rational plan of range management for the Sahel.

Among the items on their billion-dollar shopping list, the six West African Sahel states jointly have suggested only $26 million for reforestation, enough to stabilize about 50,000 acres in a territory of 2.5 million square miles. But demands for water development projects come to $200 million, a sizable chunk of it for more boreholes.

It is only too easy to understand the obsessive longing for water here. Yet no amount of it below ground can work the magic Sahelians dream of, assuring the pasture over vast prairies that only rain can provide. Whether they cannot or would rather not see that fact, Sahelian politicians have yet to mention it to their importunate constituents. If some of the wells and boreholes they are demanding now are meant for villagers, who need them badly, a frightening number are meant for herds which not one of these countries has seriously proposed to control. “As far as we know, there will be no controls and no power to impose them,” I was told by a top man at FED, the Common Market's Development Fund. “It's insane. We're tearing our hair out.”

Insane or not, FED itself is putting up millions for new boreholes. So is FAC, the French Aid and Cooperation Mission, as are the World Bank, the U.N. Development Program, the West Germans, and so on. Only the United States has refused unequivocally to drill another borehole in the Sahel without the assurance of “sound guidelines”—a policy it has followed since refusing to drill two hundred more for Niger in 1967. “What the other donors do is on their own heads,” an AID official remarked to me privately. “We don't want any part of this psychological copout.”

It is an apt description for a policy bound to doom the Sahel in the end while keeping the nomads happy for the briefest of interludes. “Too many of our projects have been singularly nonproductive, and we tediously re-introduce some which should never have been tried in the first place, with results from indifferent to disastrous,” wrote the author of a recent in-house AID report. “The time bomb is undirected water development,” he added, rightly.

An FED spokesman concurred: “But if we don't drill the boreholes, the Arabs will,” he observed, also rightly. A ranking U.N. official, in perfect agreement with the FED spokesman, nevertheless admitted in the same breath that nothing has done more than these boreholes to hasten the advance of the world's biggest desert. “We donors have a lot to answer for,” he said. Right again.