The worst drought in living memory to affect the ten West African countries bordering on the Sahara seems to have no end.
The worst drought in living memory to affect the ten West African countries bordering on the Sahara seems to have no end. For the past seven years, rainfall in the Sahel countries has been disastrously low, and now there is some evidence to indicate climatic changes are in store which will deprive more land to the south of rainfall.
There are 25 million people living in the droughtstricken areas, many of them nomads, whose lives have always been precarious, living on meet and milk and grain bartered from the settled farmers.
The drought has deprived them of precarious grazing lands, and the toll on the cattle has been enormous. Losses in Niger amount to 80 per cent of last year's herds. The harvest yield too is down in Niger, as little as half of last year's yield and in some ares there has been nothing to harvest since 1967.
In January, Niger's Head-of-State, President Hamani Diori, attended the Sahel Summit in Ouagadougou, Upper Volta. There he compared the situation with post-War Europe, and said aid on the lines of "Marshall Plan" was needed - "massive, rapid and persistent assistance."
International aid has been flowing into the region. The world's relief organisations have launched massive programmes to assist the African nations.
"The worst is definitely not over" - that is how United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim assessed the situation early in March at the end of a tour of Sahel countries. One of the great problems, said Waldheim, was transportation. Although food supplies were available, the means of delivering them to places where they were most needed were not.
No one is sure when the drought will end - some say within a year, but others are less hopeful. One of the keys to bringing fertility back to the land and restoring the natural ecology is finding fresh water sources.
Whatever the long term solutions may be, the immediate problem is acute. the human tragedy is made more harsh with reports of tribesmen committing suicide after losing all their cattle and babies dying because their mothers cannot produce any milk.