When the Sahara was green (VII)

The Sahara has not been always the most impressive desert in the world. Instead of this kingdom of rocks and sand, desolated and arid, existed in remote times a verdant and populated region. This is the testimony of the civilizations that flourished on the Central Sahara, civilizations that were extinguished when the wind of the desert covered the greenery with a shroud of sand.

From the forest to the desert

The first arab travelers, that eventually would have to rely on camels, suffered all type of penalties to go from an oasis to another; strenuous journeys without water, heat and sand storms. They reported as well the insecurity of the routes because of the organized bands that sacked and kidnapped caravans. Moors, touareg and toubous truly reached the limits of survival; when a drought period would deprive them from the livelihood, the assault to caravans, neighboring tribes, oases or the crops of the Sahel was for them a necessity. Slavery flourished and the unfortunated negroes were the most profitable ware of the caravans. The cities built in the southern end of the Sahara, such as Tombouctou or Agadez, founded after 1000 AD, would know periodically cruel plagues of famine, leaving the population literally decimated. Tombouctou and Agadez were unoccupied during many years because of the hecatombs; other cities such as Tademekka or Assodé, never recovered and were definitively abandoned. Albeit the wars could have been the direct cause, the deep reason were the droughts.

The events occurred during the 20th century are illustrative of the process of droughts and penuries that have been happening during the history of the desertized Sahara. In 1913, after several years of scarce rainfall, on which plagues of locusts made great havoc, a great plague of famine fell upon the Sahel. As oral tradition refers, more than a million of persons died. The touareg of the Ahaggar, that had arrived to the Niger river to get supplies of millet, because of not finding it, attacked the encampments of their southern brethren to sack them. Life however slowly normalized, and the herds were renovated. But in 1973 a new catastrophe ensued, destroying around 90% of the livestock that fulbe and touareg had been creating until then. Skeletal animals went to die to the wells, poisoning the air and the water, and around 250000 persons died. The famine provoked many murders as well. Without international help, the number of victims could have reached or surpassed the one of the catastrophe of 1913.

Drought crises have been repeating along the most recent history of the Sahara, reaching the current times. Examining this repeated phenomenon, it is verified that these great crises have occurred in periods of a relative prosperity, during which the man has forgotten or deliberately ignored the laws of the natural balance. In all the times the saharan herders have practiced an anarchic breeding of livestock, barely concerning about a rational exploitation of the pastures. Their behaviour tend to increase the number of milk livestock, instead of obtaining good meat cattle; they also did not paid attention to the fact that the vegetal soil of the Sahel could not endure so much pasturage. The result has been an excessive pasturage that deteriorated severely the vegatal soil, creating a severe unbalance between the animals to feed and the vegetal surfaces.

Water resources in the regions of crystalline origin, such as the mountainous massifs of the Central Sahara, are assured only by the rainfall; so, the water table is subdued to strong level variations. When Heinrich Bart was in the Air region, the wells were fitted with beam pumps, a system of irrigation that works efficiently while the water level is not deeper than 3 meters underground. But in the 1970s, all of the wells were operated by wheel pumps, because the level of the aquifers had desdenced to 25 meters or more. The descent of the water table provoked the erosion of the soil in the Air, formerly a region of template climate where valleys were covered by palms, remaining only a third part of the palms that existed in the beginning of the 20th century. Several villages were abandoned, such as Assodé or Anisamane, because their wells were depleted.

Improvidence and carelessness have been always dominant traits in the nomads. Once the crisis is gone, after having paid an expensive tribute in lives, a fast repopulation follows. It is an auto-defensive reflex against the raids of their neighbors this population explosion? Between 1900 and 1965 the touareg tribes of the Air triplicated their census, in spite of the famines and wars occurred in that period. Herds had experienced a similar rate of growth, but vegetal resources had decreased to a half. Apart from the incontestable climatic factors, the lessons contributed by the saharan neolithic prehistory and the ones that can be deducted from the present life incite to think that to the human being corresponds a big part of the responsibility in the formation of the desert.

Article based in an essay by Henri Lhote.

Rocks in Tamrit, in Tassili-n-Ajjer.

The rocks of the region of Tamrit, in Tassili-n-Ajjer, give testimony of an astonishing erosive process, due to the action of the waters in a very wet period. Many have pierced alveoli whose walls are decorated with the well-known paintings.

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