One month ahead of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP26, new testimony from Mali has laid bare how climate risks threaten communities in conflict zones.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is warning that the climate crisis is making an already dire situation much worse, with people struggling to adapt and recover from repeated climate shocks.
Patrick Youssef, ICRC’s regional director for Africa, said that the world’s most vulnerable people – often those living through conflict -- are the least able to overcome the impact the changing climate causes.
“Climate change hits the poorest and most vulnerable in the world. Farmers and other communities are unfortunately unable to cope with climate change. At COP26 we call on world leaders to take concrete action, concrete engagement, to bring climate action closest to those suffering in silence,” Mr Youssef said.
The situation in Mali shows how those in need are struggling. Lake Faguibine sits in northern Mali, 80 kilometres from Timbuktu. In the 1970s, following increasingly disastrous periods of drought, the lake began to evaporate.
Gradually, sand dunes replaced the vast expanses of water and farming land irrigated by flooding from the River Niger. Today, the region’s inhabitants have to make do with a rainy season of just three months, from July to September. For the rest of the year, temperatures approach 50°C. *
For the six lakeside municipalities, the consequences have been catastrophic. Fishing is a thing of the past, and there has been a huge drop in agriculture and livestock activities. Sand is devouring homes in the villages of Bilal Bancor, Bintagoungou and Mbouna.
Usable land is becoming scarce, provoking regular disputes between farmers and livestock herders. Mahamadou Ousmane is a farmer: “Not a day goes by without conflict between livestock herders and farmers. There’s not much space, and everyone wants a bit of what there is. So there’s tension.”
People are cutting the last remaining trees, exacerbating soil erosion and dehydration. But for some, there is no alternative if they are to survive. Alhousna Walet Alhassane is a lumberjack. As a widow, she has to fend for herself. “I know it’s destroying the environment, but if I don’t do it, how am I going to buy food?”
Since the lake dried up, flammable gas has been seeping out of the ground. When it ignites, it destroys the few remaining trees. And it leaves the soil unsuitable for agriculture. Moussa Mouhamadou Touré shows us the fields where he used to grow food. “Look how the colour of our soil has changed. It’s red, it’s black, it’s granules. The gas has burned all the soil, and the trees.”
Poverty has arrived, and the younger generation has no choice but to leave the villages and the region. The food security and economic survival of the villages are in danger.
In the past, the area around the lake exported timber, livestock, fish and grain to other parts of Mali, and to the neighbouring countries of Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Mauritania. People could buy textiles, motorbikes, household electrical appliances and spare parts.
Moussa Mahamadou Touré’s son has moved to the capital, Bamako: “The village is only functioning thanks to our brave children who have gone away. Fifty to sixty per cent of the population has left.”
His son tells the same story: “I came to Bamako because before, our parents were farmers. But there was drought all through our childhood. Those of us who are living here are dividing what we earn between ourselves and our families in the North.”
For those young people who do remain in the region, there is another danger: recruitment by armed groups. There is little work, and the school in Bintagoungou is closed.
The mayor, Hama Abacrene, shows us a school building full of sand. “This is a school for almost 400 students. 400 students. That’s an entire generation. A lost generation, a generation condemned to flee. Or be recruited.”
The ICRC has set up a project to stabilize 10 hectares (25 acres) of sand dunes in Bilal Bancor. The idea is to block off the main route by which the sand is advancing on the village. More than 100 people from vulnerable households took part, which gave them the opportunity to earn a daily wage for approximately 20 days.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world and has been wracked by conflict for many years. The humanitarian situation is critical, and conditions are harsh. Mali consists mainly of desert or semi-desert and is one of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-Gain) Index
*The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts an average temperature increase of 3.3°C for West Africa between now and 2100, with the risk of a 4.7°C rise in northern Mali over the same period.
Location: Villages of Bilal Bancor, Mbouna and Bintagoungou on the shore of Lake Faguibine, and capital Bamako (Mali)
Date: June 2021
Length: 14 min 15 sec
Cameraman: Birom Seck
Editors: Birom Seck/Tristan Audéoud
Producer: Didier Revol
Languages: French, Songhay, Tamasheq
Copyright: Free of rights
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Aerial view of Bilal Bancor, which is feeling the full force of the invading desert. The dunes have been stabilized to slow their advance. (3 shots)
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Abdul Karim Ag Al Hassane used to be a farmer. Then the sand swallowed up his fields, forcing him to become a livestock herder. He reviews the damage to his land.
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Mahamadou Ousmane is a farmer. He has always lived in Bilal Bancor. Sitting on a dune, he stares helplessly at the sand dunes that have been closing in on his village for several years. (3 shots)
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A man walks through the desert. (1 shot)
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Soundbite: Mahamadou Ousmane, farmer:
“When there was still water on our land, we grew rice and wheat
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and we supplied Goundam, Douethirey and Timbuktu with grain.
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Nowadays, the little water that reaches the pond is only just enough to grow what we need to survive.”
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Lake Faguibine has been replaced by an expanse of cracked earth, with just a few shells to show that once there was water and life. (2 shots)
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The people of the village are building natural barriers to stabilize the sand dunes and stop them moving. Already, the sand is dangerously close to their homes. (2 shots)
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Soundbite: Abdul Karim Ag Al Hassane. Former farmer, now a livestock herder.
“All this area was covered by water.
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Then the water receded and trees started to grow around the lake.
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Then the trees started to disappear
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and people grew crops where the trees used to be.
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During the first rebellion, displaced persons arrived. They destroyed the forest.
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And once the forest was gone, sand dunes formed.”
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Women gather firewood, which they tie into bundles and sell on the market. (3 shots)
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Alhousna Walet Alhassane is a lumberjack, a widow and mother of three children. As an old person living alone, she has to cut down trees to survive, even though she is aware of the environmental consequences. (5 shots)
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Alhousna will sell the wood she has collected in the village. (5 shots)
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Soundbite: Alhousna Walet Alhassane, a widow and lumberjack. Mother of three children.
“I know it’s destroying the environment, but if I don’t do it, how am I going to buy food?”
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My children are grown up. They’ve done what all the young people are doing:
they’ve left home and never get in touch.
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I’ve stayed here. They’re in various countries now.”
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Images of a ghost village near the lake. As the desert advances, houses fill with sand. Over half the inhabitants have left, especially the younger ones. (5 shots)
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Animal carcasses. (4 shots)
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There is very little water in Lake Faguibine. Herders have to walk several kilometres to water their livestock. When the sand swallowed up his fields, Abdul Karim Ag Al Hassane was forced to become a livestock herder to survive.
Aerial view of a herd of livestock.
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Abdul Karim brings his animals to the water point so they can drink. (7 shots)
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Abdul Karim was not always a livestock herder. He misses the time when he could grow crops on his land. After feeding his animals and shutting them in, he heads for home, exhausted. (5 shots)
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“I prefer arable to livestock farming.
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You don’t have much in the way of expenses. You grow crops and you harvest them.
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Animals are much more tiring.
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You have to move them around, water them,
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and run around after them day and night.”
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Mahamadou Ousmane is a farmer, but the lack of both water and security are not making his life easy. He refuses to leave his village. He watches his wife and daughters harvest the maize that they will try to sell on the market. (7 shots)
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“Not a day goes by without conflict between livestock herders and farmers.
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There’s not much space, and everyone wants a bit of what there is.
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So there’s tension.
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After we’ve harvested our produce we have to transport it, and that’s dangerous.
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Even the women you see behind me are at risk.
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Their maize may be stolen on the way.”
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The village of Mbouna is a community of 5,000 people, all of them farmers with no land. Half of them have left, so they can support the older villagers who have stayed at home.
Lake Faguibine is nothing but a distant memory. Since the lake dried up, flammable gas has been seeping out of the ground. When it ignites, it destroys the few remaining trees. Aerial view of burnt earth where the lake used to be.
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Images of dried-up plants and dead wood. (2 shots)
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Moussa Mouhamadou Touré has always lived in Mbouna. He remembers when his area was one of the main suppliers of grain to the Timbuktu region. Now, the waters of the lake have receded. Burning gas escapes from the ground, making it impossible to cultivate the soil.
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Soundbite: Moussa Mouhamadou Touré
“Look, look, look.”
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Moussa holds burnt earth in his hands.
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“Look how the colour of our soil has changed. It’s red, it’s black, it’s granules. You see?
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The gas has burned all the soil. The trees. The earth has changed colour. We have to deal with all these problems.”
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Smoke rises from the earth burned by the gas. Moussa scratches the surface, revealing glowing embers. (4 shots)
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A charred tree trunk. (1 shot)
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“There was a big forest here. Before that there was the lake, where we used to grow our crops.
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The forest grew following the droughts. And after the forest came the gas.
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The gas has eaten up all the trees we had.”
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Moussa goes home. (2 shots)
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Mahamadou is Moussa’s son. Like almost all the young people of his village, he lives in self-imposed exile in the Malian capital Bamako, from where he is supporting his family.
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Soundbite: Mahamadou Moussa
“Hello. How are you? Everything OK there? I’ve just sent you 30,000 CFA francs by Moi Cash. So you can go and collect it.”
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Soundbite: Moussa Mahamadou Touré
“God bless you! Thank you very much.”
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Moussa goes to the village shopkeeper to collect the money his son has sent him. (5 shots)
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Moussa’s house. In the courtyard, children play and women talk. (3 shots)
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Soundbite: Moussa Mahamadou Touré
“The village is only functioning thanks to our brave children who have gone away.
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Fifty to sixty per cent of the population has left.”
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Bamako, in the area where Mahamadou, Moussa’s son lives. (2 shots)
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Moussa’s son Mahamadou has been living in Bamako for three years. He decided to take his chances in the capital, where he does odd jobs. This earns him enough to support his wife, their new-born baby and his parents back home in Mbouna. Knowing how difficult it is for children to go to school in his village, he has them stay with him, enabling them to get an education.
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The children are learning to read and write in an improvised classroom in his home. (6 shots)
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Soundbite: Mahamadou Moussa
“I came to Bamako because before, our parents were farmers.
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But there was drought all through our childhood.
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As soon as we were old enough, we had to move here to earn money and send something to our families, so they could eat.
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The young men of my generation are here, with their wives.
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Those of us who are living here divide what we earn between ourselves and our families in the North.
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We often have school students from the North, which adds to our costs.”
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Mahamadou leaves to visit his wife, who has just given birth to their first child. (6 shots)
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Bintagoungou is a small village near Lake Faguibine. It too has been invaded by the sands. Its school is one of the few in the villages around the lake. But soil erosion, high winds and the sand that has buried the classrooms have rendered it inaccessible to its 400 students, who now have to look after themselves. (4 shots)
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Soundbite: Hama Abacrene, mayor of Bintagoungou
“You see? This sand dune wasn’t there before. It entered the school from the right. The ground was flat between those two blocks.
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“This is a school for almost 400 students. 400 students. That’s an entire generation. A lost generation, a generation condemned to flee. Or be recruited.
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A force stronger than us has destroyed the school: the advancing desert, erosion and sand.
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Since 2012, our municipalities have only been able to survive thanks to the support of our partners. That’s to say humanitarian partners and development partners, which are rare here.
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The biggest investment that’s needed is not to distribute aid to people. What’s needed is to try and identify the cause of the problem and resolve it.
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That means stabilizing the dunes so as to immediately halt the erosion.
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And fill the lake with water again, so that people can earn a living.
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If you look at those parts of Lake Faguibine where there is still water, you’ll see some wonderful livestock.
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Hama Abacrene stares helplessly at a classroom ravaged by high winds. All remains is a school bench, an old cupboard and a blackboard covered in spider’s webs.
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Silhouettes of cattle returning to the village at dusk.
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Time-lapse of sunset over Lake Faguibine.
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Soundbite Patrick Youssef, ICRC director of operations for Africa (English – 36”)
“Climate change hits the poorest and most vulnerable in the world. We see that concretely with people affected by war, violence and many other situations that are impacting their daily lives. Farmers and other communities are unfortunately unable to cope with climate change. At COP26 we call on world leaders to take concrete action, concrete engagement, to bring climate action closest to those suffering in silence, where unfortunately, and until today, the action has been underwhelming to say the least.”
For further information, please contact:
ICRC media relations, Dakar
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ICRC media relations Geneva
ICRC communication manager, Bamako
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