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Rural societies in the face of climatic and environmental changes in West Africa

Benjamin Sultan
Richard Lalou
Mouftaou Amadou Sanni
et al.


Benjamin Sultan, Richard Lalou, Amadou Oumarou, Mouftaou Amadou Sanni et Mame Arame Soumaré

Texte intégral

A close link between climate and agricultural production

1The population of the Sahel is mainly rural and particularly concerned by climate variability as this affects food, water and financial resources and has a direct impact on public health. The economy and food security are closely dependent on rainfed farming—used on 93% of the cultivated land. The African farming sector employs 70% of total labour (FAO 2003), generates 15 to 20% of the GDP and produces 80% of the cereals consumed in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to this dependence, rapid population growth and limited access to technological adaptations (mechanisation, fertilizers, irrigation) are factors that aggravate the socioeconomic effect of the climate (UNDP, 2004). This vulnerability to climate increased at the end of the 20th century as a result of a nearly 30% decrease in precipitation in the Sahel over a period of 40 years (Brown and Crawford, 2008) while the population doubled. The more marked famines since the 1970s necessitated international food aid and were caused partly by climatic variations (Dilley et al., 2005). In this context, understanding and anticipating climate fluctuations and changes together with their consequences for farming form a major issue for socioeconomic development and food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

2The expected consequences of climate change are added to these recent fluctuations. The last report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014) confirms—with increasing certitude—the global warming caused by the increase in greenhouse gases and its probable consequences for the environment and societies. In particular, it issued another warning to the international community about an increase in temperatures worldwide and a probable increase in the frequency and intensity of major meteorological events such as droughts, mentioning Africa as being one of the regions that are most vulnerable to changes in climate. Even if many uncertainties remain about the effects of global warming on the climate of Africa, such an upset will certainly have repercussions on water resources and agricultural production (CGIAR, 2009). These expected impacts form an additional constraint for a farming system that already has a precarious balance with present climatic variability, especially as regards population growth, a major challenge for agriculture. Indeed, the population of sub-Saharan Africa will double by 2050.

The need for an interdisciplinary approach

3In this context of strong vulnerability to climate, it seems essential to the scientific community to describe and understand the modes of variability of the West African climate in order to improve forecasts and provide decision aid for users—whether this be to guide farming strategy or to face up to health risks that might be linked to the climate (heat waves or malaria for example). Applications and impact studies focused on water resources, agronomy and public health whose aim is to meet demand from society to devise strategies that reduce the socioeconomic impacts of variability and climate change have thus formed one of the main components of the Amma research programme (Analyse multidisciplinaire de la mousson africaine; Redelsperger et al., 2006) that started in 2002. The programme is based on strong international coordination of different activities and includes fundamental research and programmes of observations running for several years (in particular an intensive campaign in 2006) and a true multidisciplinary effort to meet three objectives: 1) better knowledge of the African monsoon; 2) establishing links between climate variability and problems of health, water resources and food security; 3) ensuring that the results of multidisciplinary research are truly integrated in forecasting and decision. Through the multidisciplinary mobilisation generated (especially as regards common objectives in climatology, hydrology, agronomy, biology and medicine), the Amma project has been an ideal framework for setting up true dialogue between communities of scientists and users in order to respond to the priority needs of the population. It has also shown the limits of an ‘impacts’ type approach that implies a linear, one-to-one view of the climate problem and its consequences for societies. Indeed, relations between humans and their environment have complex economic, social and political configurations that must be addressed and seen together with climatic and environmental phenomena using a multidisciplinary approach. This interdisciplinary approach is crucial in problems of adaptation to environmental changes in which the response of societies is set in overall social changes.

4Although these issues have a special effect in sub-Saharan Africa because of the vulnerability of the population to climate, the interdisciplinary approach to interactions between climate and societies is not peculiar to this question in Africa but corresponds to an inflection of research at the beginning of this century related to the prospect of global change and its effects. Evaluating the effects of climate fluctuations and change on the environment and society requires an interdisciplinary approach incorporating both the biophysical and human dimensions. Thus an increasing dominant role of interdisciplinarity has been observed in the past decade in the issues concerning global change of the ‘Future Earth’ programme of ICSU (Earth System Science Partnership of the International Council for Science) that groups major large environmental programmes (Diversitas, IGBP, IHDP, WCRP and ESSP) to create a scientific community better able to respond to the societal challenges raised by global environmental change. Another example of this trend—at the national scale in this case—is that the 2006 ‘Vulnérabilité, Milieux et Climats’ programme of the ANR (Agence nationale de la recherche) became entitled ‘Vulnérabilité, Milieux, Climats et Sociétés’ in 2008, ‘Changements environnementaux planétaires et sociétaux’ in 2010 and then ‘Sociétés & Changements Environnementaux’ in 2013.

The Escape Project

5The interactive use of biophysical sciences (climate, hydrology, agronomy) and human sciences (demography, history, anthropology, geography) is the challenge targeted by the Escape project (‘Environmental and Social Changes in Africa: Past, present and future’). From 2011 to 2015, the project assembled 8 French partners (Locean, GET, CIRAD, LPED, OMP, CNRM, LTHE, HSM) and 10 African partners (AGRHYMET, CEFORP, UCAD, LPAOSF, LASDEL, IER, DNM Mali, AfricaRice, ICRISAT), with two main objectives 1) characterisation of the past and future vulnerability of rural societies in Africa to environment and climatic changes; 2) exploration of adaptation pathways to mitigate this vulnerability. The strengths of the project lie in the extremely multidisciplinary consortium, close links between partners in the North and the South, the use of knowledge and data from existing programmes and a determination to make use of the results for societies.

6While performing specific research on the recent development of the climate and forecasts and the environment and its impacts on resources the project features integration of the human dimension in the question of variability and environmental changes. This integration has been implemented by the running of case studies in Senegal, Mali, Niger and Benin. These were aimed at:

  • defining the role of climatic and environmental changes in the past and present evolution of agropastoral practices and, more widely, those of rural societies;
  • examining the way in which persons and groups perceive and comprehend the variability of their environment and how they integrate this by adaptation.

7Unravelling this complexity of combined human and natural systems required an approach capable of responding to major issues of interdisciplinarity: 1) mastery of the basic notions of several disciplines so that multidisciplinary teams could perform joint reflection using shared concepts and questions; 2) collecting both disciplinary and integrated data at several scales in several geo-climatic regions; 3) developing analytical methods to link ceaselessly changing social and ecological factors. The Escape project has tried to meet these three objectives of interdisciplinary research.

8The implementation of interdisciplinary work between natural sciences and social sciences started with discussion between disciplines and the joint elaboration of research questions. Participatory diagnostic workshops at three different locations (Bankoukou in Niger, Niakhar in Senegal and Djougou in Benin) formed the focuses for interdisciplinary exchange. The principle was the same in each case: some 15 researchers grouped in the same place for five days to draw up a rapid diagnosis of both the representations and perceptions of crop and livestock farmers with regard to climatic and environmental changes, their vulnerabilities and changes in farming systems. The workshops fostered comparison and then a preliminary synthesis (1) of the knowledge drawn from several scientific disciplines (agronomy, anthropology, climatology, demography, ecology, geography, history, etc.) and (2) between what the scientists say and farmers’ knowledge and practices. On completion of the workshops, we had a more complete description of the agrarian and social system and also better identification and analysis of interactions between the social system and the natural environment. Finally, this work made it possible to achieve better interdisciplinary definition of research aims, questions and procedures while gaining better understanding of the complexity of systems in which humans and nature are paired. Two themes at the interface between several disciplines finally emerged: 1) understanding farmers’ representations and perceptions of the climate by comparing them with scientific discourse and observations; 2) analysing farmers’ adaptations–and capacities for adaptation–to inter-annual variation in precipitation, with descriptions of all the ecological, agronomic and social logics. Among many others, these two research themes have formed the two main areas in which the interdisciplinary work was carried out.

9From a technical point of view, the work involving several disciplines was in the form—as far as this was possible—of an integrated data system developed on a collaborative basis. In contrast with strictly ecological or solely social studies that each have no knowledge of the impacts of a natural or social system on the other system, these interdisciplinary studies examine the climatic, ecological, agronomic and social dimensions of the system and their interactions. Several multidisciplinary collection methods were designed for this, with each discipline participating in the construction and interpretation of individual or hybrid indicators. Researchers in the social sciences, agronomy, climatology and soil science thus fed a shared collection tool with notions and questions specific to their disciplines. When the scale of analysis permitted, biophysical observations were paired with the statements of stakeholders. Finally, all the studies covered specific contexts over sufficiently long periods of time (more than 50 years of observations in Senegal) to shed light on the temporal dynamics and specific local features of agricultural and social patterns. The interdisciplinary research process continued with the comparison of the analysis models of each disciplinary field in order to examine threshold effects and reciprocal actions between systems. Through these studies in particular, the Escape project has made possible a visit to the complexities of the human/nature paired system that is much closer than climatic, ecological, agronomic and social investigations conducted separately. Finally, this book is aimed at identifying, analysing and interpreting all the heterogeneities of context, scale and system and all the dynamics, reciprocal effects and thresholds that bind climate, ecosystems and societies.

Description of the book

10The 20 chapters written by researchers in France and Africa participating in the Escape project give a cross-referenced interdisciplinary view of past and present changes together with future scenarios of farming systems by examining how the effects of the climate interact with the other large changes in Africa (demographic changes, changes in land use, increasing urbanisation, social reconfigurations, increased poverty, etc.). As rural systems and environmental changes should be seen as adaptive and co-evolutive, the work covers the adaptation capacity of rural stakeholders (modes of access to resources, use and management of resources, capacity for adaptation to natural events) in a variety of situations in Niger, Senegal and Benin. The choice of situations is aimed at reflecting the diversity of farming systems and the variety of natural and social environments that form a constraint to this, with account taken of the social, economic and technical aspects.

11Four major themes are covered.

1. Recent and future climate changes in West Africa: the obvious, the uncertain and the perceived

12This theme is an examination of the climate in West Africa and addresses both the recent evolution of the climate and also the way in which the climate could change in the future because of the effect of greenhouses gases. Based on observations and modelling, it shows the considerable changes in progress with, in particular, very marked warming and an intensification of precipitations. Finally, the theme shows the way in which the population who experience this climatic variability represent and perceive the recent climate pattern.

2. Environmental changes and the impacts of the climate

13As a response or not to changes in the climate, considerable changes are observed and forecast in West African environmental resources. Using historical data series from field records, satellite imagery or modelling, the theme addresses the changes in vegetation, agricultural productivity and the hydrological cycle that sometimes have tragic consequences resulting from increased flooding.

3. Societal changes of rural populations

14Demographers, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers and historians address the interactions between rural societies and their environment to integrate the different time and spatial scales and observation units (farm, field, village, family or even an individual person).

15This theme underlines the complexity of the relation between environmental changes and social changes that often interfere with production or consumption patterns.

4. Adaptations to farming systems, innovations

16Analysis of the adaptation strategies developed by rural populations in response to the changes that they perceive. The strategies are part of a set of socioeconomic changes in which climate is one factor among others. Field surveys indicate the great reactiveness of populations; these are capable of recovering from extremely serious events such as the 1970-1980 drought and also able to profit from more favourable climatic conditions. This capacity for adaptation is guided by the memory of the populations and by a large number of socioeconomic factors that lead to varied adaptation pathways for the same measurement change in climate.



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