It is mostly covered in grassland and savanna, with areas of woodland and shrubland. Rainfall is low and unpredictable (typically 100-350mm per year) and drought and flash floods are common, with climate change intensifying weather extremes. It is one of the poorest regions in the world, with several countries that rank lowest in the United Nations' Human Development Index 2007-08 (including Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali & Ethiopia). The 300 million or so people who live across this dry belt of lands practice small-scale cultivation and pastoralism – a system of raising and herding livestock that developed centuries ago to cope with changing weather patterns.
For centuries, farmers and herders have lived in harmony with each other and this hostile environment. Recently, this relationship has come under strain and conflicts between settled and nomadic people are increasing in number and severity. Here are just two reasons why:
- herders are forced to travel further in search of green pasture due to failed rains, often damaging farmers' un-harvested crops
- farmers are encroaching onto areas dedicated for grazing as the land is squeezed by the expansion of large-scale commercial agriculture and oil exploration.
''Sahel'' is an Arabic word meaning 'edge of the desert'.