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The Sahel: Climate Foresight for the Poorest
Alex Steffen, 17 Jun 06

The future of the Sahel (the vast semi-arid region lying south of the Sahara) is one of the wild cards of green futurism. It has, for the last two decades, suffered from unusually severe droughts, killing hundreds of thousands and throwing into doubt the future of the region's millions of pastoral nomads and subsistence farmers -- many of whom are among the poorest people in the world. The hope had been that climate change might actually benefit the Sahel to some degree, by making the region slightly wetter, but that, it turns out, may not be the case:

Last year US-based researchers Martin Hoerling and James Hurrell looked at all of the most recent climate models, averaged them out, and came to the conclusion that the Sahel's recent fate would be reversed in the 21st century.Global warming, they concluded, would bring much-needed rainfall to the region — one of the very few positive outcomes of greenhouse gas emissions.
But in late 2005, Isaac Held of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published the results of a new climate model that suggested that, far from becoming wetter, the Sahel faces a period of "dramatic drying" if greenhouse gas emissions are not checked.
Held's team readily admitted that their results, from a single model, should not be the basis for policy decisions. But one striking point meant the results could not be discarded. The model mimicked the region's recent climate more faithfully than any previous one had — an important measure of how reliable it is.

As data acculmulate and climate models improve, we should be able to much more effectively forecast the general trends of impacts in specific places -- to apply regional climate foresight. Climate foresight is a vitally important planning concept for people in prosperous regions, but it may literally become a matter of life and death in places where livelihoods are already precarious, especially in the polar regions and places where small shifts in rainfall patterns could speed the progress of desertification. Knowing what's coming will not only enable outsiders to offer more effective help, it may also prepare the folks whose lives are being destroyed to with at least some ability to adapt.

Thus far, though, there's been a lack of funding for science -- especially climate science -- in the places which most need it. That needs to change. We need climate foresight for the poorest people on the planet, done in such a manner that we not only get better answers, but involve the people most likely to be affected, so that they can adopt the lessons learned as quickly as possible and on their own terms.

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Comments

It sounds like things are getting worse in the Sahel. Drought it getting worse in many places, including places like Western Australia. Unfortunately, the water shortage issue in Australia is being linked to arguments in favour of nuclear power here - to generate power to run water de-salination plants to tackle the severe water shortage. (But let's not talk about how much water growing GM cotton costs us environmentally etc, eh?) But, Australia is a prosperous country. You are right about the impact of global warming on poor countries not getting the attention it deserves.

On the flip side of drought is the rising sea levels – especially in the Pacific, where small island states face being wiped out. For instance, Tuvalu is facing a major crisis, as six out of eight islands are heavily salinated due to rising sea-levels, and their entire population has to find another place to live! Earlier this year, I heard a repersentative from Tuvalu speak in Melbourne about their negotiations with the Fijian chiefs to be allowed to relocate to one of the islands of Fiji. There is some interesting information about Tuvalu on this site here. And Tuvalu isn't the only nation in this situation!


Posted by: Mark on 19 Jun 06



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