Desertification in the Sahel: a reinterpretation


Lars Hein, tel. +31 317 482993, fax +31 317 484839, e-mail:


The impact of human management, in particular livestock grazing, on the vegetation cover of the Sahel is still debated. In a range of studies, satellite images have been used to analyze the development of the Sahelian vegetation cover over time. These studies did not reveal any significant degradation of the Sahel in the last two decades. In this paper, we examine the ecological assumptions underlying the use of satellite imagery to analyze degradation of the Sahel. Specifically, we analyze the variability of the rain-use efficiency (RUE), which is often used as an indicator for the state of the vegetation cover. We detect a fundamental flaw in the way RUE has been handled in most remote sensing studies; they ignored the relation between annual rainfall variation and RUE. Because of the upward trend in annual rainfall that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, this leads to a bias in the interpretation of the satellite images. In this paper, we show the importance of the variability in RUE for the analysis of remote sensing imagery of semiarid rangelands. Our analysis also shows that it is likely that there has been anthropogenic degradation of the Sahelian vegetation cover in the last two decades. This has important consequences for the debate on the impacts of grazing on semiarid rangelands. Furthermore, the occurrence of anthropogenic degradation is relevant to explain the magnitude of 20th century Sahelian droughts. The analyses also indicate that the population of the Sahel may be more vulnerable for droughts than currently assumed.