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.