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close this bookSustaining the Future: Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 pages)
close this folderPart 2: Environmental issues and futures
close this folderDrought, desertification, and water management in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentDroughts in Sub-Saharan Africa and their implications for planning and development
View the documentDesertification
View the documentLand degradation and management of soil and water
View the documentConclusion
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentReferences


For Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, consisting of 45 countries, gross national product per person in constant dollars fell by 20 per cent between 1977 and 1986. May (1988) reports that the average person in many of these countries is now poorer than at the time of independence about 30 years ago. Whereas Latin America and Asia have become almost self-sufficient in cereals, Africa has grown more dependent on imports and food aid. Total food production has, in fact, increased but not enough to keep pace with population growth. During the past 30 years agricultural production in Sub-Saharan Africa has risen by 2 per cent a year, while population is growing at the rate of about 3.2 per cent a year, faster than any other region has ever experienced (World Bank 1989).

The constraints on development in Sub-Saharan Africa are many and varied, including the following: a difficult climate with frequent episodes of severe drought in the semi-arid lands; fragile soils prone to erosion and nutrient depletion; a very fast rate of population growth; a heavy external debt burden. The world economy has not favoured Africa. Declines in Africa's commodity export prices and increases in the import prices of manufactured goods and oil have deteriorated the terms of trade and worsened Africa's external debt burden. Although this is true of all third world economies, the impasse in Sub-Saharan Africa is most striking.

Yet, as Harrison (1987) points out, the economic crisis is dwarfed by the continent's deepening environmental crisis. In the semi-arid regions, for example, recurrent droughts and population pressure have led to destruction of vegetation resulting in desertification, erosion, and depletion of soil fertility. Although the outlook is rather gloomy, there are individual projects that have succeeded against a background of general failure. If we could read the lessons of their successes, we might be able to piece together the formula, as Harrison (1987) puts it, and find some way of breaking through the development impasse.

This paper highlights some of the major environmental constraints in Sub-Saharan Africa and points to their implications for sustainable development strategies in the region, with a focus on semi-arid lands.