Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Comparing land-use in the Sahel and the Mojave

Description: Riviera Hotel Las Vegas
Sahel                                                  Mojave

Location (including states/countries)

Spans several countries across the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa along the south edge of the Sahara desert. Includes Sudan, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Located in south-western USA, mostly in California but also extends into Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

How does this affect land-use management?

Very difficult to reach agreements between countries, strategies end up being disjointed. Some countries more proactive than others when it comes to environmental conservation. Some countries face political instability and have a lack of decision-making infrastructure making cooperation difficult. Weak links between different levels of government (e.g. central government and local authorities) may make management strategies difficult to implement.

The entire area is within one country which has a strong system of government. Governmental and non-governmental organisations are able to work together effectively and a strong law-and-order system allows policies to be enforced. The USA also has well-respected environmental pressure groups. Conservation is generally seen as an important issue.

Economy (e.g. GNP)

Niger = $380 per capita; Mali = $700

USA = $50,000 per capita

How does this affect land-use management?

Poverty is a huge issue for both countries and individuals. National governments need to prioritise where to spend a limited amount of money and they may choose to invest in other areas such as industry or cities rather than the sparsely populated Sahel. At a local scale people have little time or money to spend on land management projects as they are too pre-occupied with their day-to-day survival.

The USA is highly developed and affluent country where most people live a higher quality of life than those in the Sahel and hence have time for other considerations such as the environment. Desert areas are seen as resources which can be exploited and the challenges they pose can be overcome with large scale projects as money is not so much of an issue as it is in Africa.

Natural Processes (local climate, desertification, flooding)

Desertification is a major problem in the Sahel. The high rate of population growth (thought to be doubling every 20 years) is putting a lot of pressure on an environment, which has experienced a significant reduction in rainfall since the 1970s. Prolonged droughts are common, and when the rains finally do come they can result in flash floods, causing even more destruction to any crops that survived the drought.
Quotation from the UN:

“Over the last half century, the combined effects of population growth, land degradation (deforestation, continuous cropping and overgrazing), reduced and erratic rainfall, lack of coherent environmental policies and misplaced development priorities, have contributed to transform a large proportion of the Sahel into barren land, resulting in the deterioration of the soil and
water resource”

Although vulnerable to desertification due to climate change and mis-managed grazing, the process is largely kept under control and is much less of a threat in the USA.


Livestock herding and cultivation is the main form of land-use in the Sahel with many people being subsistence farmers. Traditionally Sahelian people were nomadic, moving to greener pastures and leaving other areas to re-grow. However, a combination of enforced colonial barriers and population increase (3% per year) that is outstripping food production (2% per year) has led to settling of the nomadic population and hence overgrazing and overcultivation.

The settled population is also removing trees and vegetation to use for fuelwood as they have no other source of energy. This is extremely unsustainable as it removes the protective cover of the soil, reinforcing the desertification process. Low levels of education and security mean that people do not realise or do not have a choice but to destroy their own environment. A lack of knowledge may also lead them carry out inappropriate farming techniques such as over-irrigation, which can lead to soil salinization.

However some initiatives have been put in place to place to tackle these problems. Most of these are small-scale and low-cost. For example the use of diguettes to reduce soil erosion, early-warning systems to prevent drought-induced food shortages, use of more efficient farming techniques such as drip-irrigation and high-yielding crop varieties, and afforestation programmes such as ‘Sahel Eco’.

Cattle-ranching was one of the first agricultural activities due to the arid climate of this area but the development of large scale irrigation allowed more intensive forms of agriculture such as cotton, grapes, nuts, vegetable and alfalfa – a forage crop for cattle.

Irrigation has brought a number of problems including salinization and a lowering of the water table.

Water Supply

The Sahel suffers from frequents droughts and hence famines as they are extremely dependent on rainfall and have few back-up options. When the rains do come they often lack the ability to store water. Millions are dependent on long-term aid to survive.

The situation is totally different in the USA as development and technology has enabled the country to not only meet individual water needs but also provide for intensive irrigation. However this is not without its problems.

The Colorado river is a heavily used source of water for irrigation. This has led to a decrease in discharge and an increase in salinity downstream and caused tensions between the USA and Mexico.

Other water supplies are the Sierra Nevada Mountains, from which water is transported via the California Aqueduct and sub-surface aquifers. Conflicts over water allocations have also occurred between farmers, the water authority and Native Americans.


Some mining is carried out in the Sahel such as ACM corporation who mine for manganese in Mali and Burkina Faso. Gold has also been mined in Mali as well as Senegal. This provides some local employment opportunities but riots have also occurred in mining areas by locals who are unhappy with the lack of benefits they have had from mining revenues. As well as environmental impacts it has also created problems such as prostitution in the once tiny in the once tiny and very traditional village of Diabougou, which is now home to thousands of informal minors.

The south western states are an important source of minerals such as copper, silver, gold and salts from the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In the Mojave desert itself Molycorp has begun mining for rare earth elements, which are used in many products from mobile phones to missiles systems. Mining is a costly process both economically and environmentally, but new methods are being developed to reduce the impacts.


Conflict in Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia have all hindered efforts to develop sustainable land-use management strategies. Deliberate burning of vegetation and deforestation by for fuelwood by refugees has is accelerating the process of desertification.

A large amount of land in the Mojave is owned by the Department of Defence, who have several training bases there. They have been heavily involved in developing the West Mojave Management Plan which aims to conserve the biological resources of the area. They have also established a scientific database (the Mojave Desert Ecosystem Program) to assist with sustainable management of the environment.


There are some tourist attractions in the Sahel such as the rock engravings of Pobe Mengao in Burkina Faso as well as wildlife parks. Some of the Tuareg people in Mali and Niger earn an important part of their income running trips into the Sahara desert. However, many people are put off by fears of kidnappings and terrorist attacks. E.g. 4 French hostages were taken in Niger by Al-Qaeda in October 2013.

Tourism is an important industry and major source of employment in the Mojave with millions of visitors attracted to honeypot locations such as the Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks every year. This poses a huge management challenge for the authorities who have to balance the tourist’s needs with environmental conservation. Strategies have been implemented to reduce the impact of tourism. For example the Bureau of Land Management had designated large areas for the use of off-road vehicles, in the hope that other areas will be conserved. However in 2009 environmental groups won a court order to prevent further expansion of the area as the judge found that they BLM had failed to consider other alternatives or carry out adequate environmental impact assessments.

Desert cities in this area such as Las Vegas also attract many tourists who come for the gambling and live entertainment.

Urbanisation &
Waste management

Although the Sahel is largely rural, urbanisation has been occurring in some places, particularly around existing large cities but also in other areas. For example in Mali the number of urban centres containing 5-10 000 people increased from 16 to 59 in less than 30 years. This rapid urbanization has brought all the problems that area seen with slums in development countries; issues with water supply, congestion, pollution, crime, housing and waste. Population increase and desertification are greatly contributing to rural-urban migration.

The population of the Mojave has rapidly increased since the 90s and is expected to triple within 20 years. Las Vegas is home to 2 million people with a further 1 million living in the semi-arid area of Greater Los Angeles. There is an increasing demand for retirement homes due to the potential to enjoy all-year-round sunshine from an air-conditioned home. Commercial developments and a new airport is planned to serve Las Vegas. All of these are potentially very damaging to the sensitive desert ecosystem.
Waste management for all of these people and developments is a challenging and controversial issue. A recent initiative in Barstow attracted 500 people to help clean up all sort of rubbish including abandoned cards, sofas and washing machines from the surrounding desert area. In 2009 a planning application to create a massive landfill site in Joshua Tree NP was turned down. The site would have received 20 000 tons of waste from LA every day for 117 years.


Conservation in the Sahel is a secondary consideration since many people are not able to lead a decent quality of life themselves.

Environmental awareness is much higher in the USA, especially in a fragile ecosystem like the Mojave Desert which is home to several endangered species, and large amounts of funding have gone into conservation projects. For example, between 1996 and 2006 $93 million was spent on saving the Mojave desert tortoise from the brink of extinction.

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