Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen | Go to book overview
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Chapter 8
Drought and Famine in the Sahel


The name Sahel is derived from an Arabic word meaning 'shore' or 'border'. The Sahel refers to the border of the world's largest tropical desert: the Sahara. It is, in fact, the fringe of the desert, lying between the desert and the tropical rain forests of Africa. But within this general conception of the Sahel, a great many alternative specifications of it can be found in the vast literature on the Sahel produced by geographers and climatologists. It is useful to begin by sorting out the different approaches, if only to avoid possible confusion later in the analysis of the Sahelian drought.

(1) The ecological definitions The Sahel can be defined as the 'dry zone', comprising the 'arid' zone (with average rainfall per year less than 100 mm, or 4 in.) and the 'semi-arid' zone (with rainfall between 100 and 500 mm, or between 4 and 20 in.), on the southern fringe of the Sahara, and this coincides with a 'tropical steppe vegetation belt'.1 It runs across the broadest part of Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. The Sahel is sometimes defined not as the entire dry zone immediately south of the Sahara, but as only the semi-arid zone there. While covering less than the whole dry zone in this part of the world, it too runs from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.2

(2) The politico-ecological definitions On this view, the Sahel is defined as the 'semi-arid vegetation belt' in six West African countries, viz. Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger, and Chad.3 Alternatively, and more broadly, the Sahel could refer to the 'dry zone' in these six countries.

Harrison Church ( 1973), p. 62; see also Harrison Church ( 1961).
See Winstanley ( 1976), p. 189. Winstanley's specification of rainfall for the semi-arid region is also on the higher side, viz. 'between 200 and 600 mm', so that not merely the and zone but also regions at the northern end of the semi-arid zone as defined by Harrison Church ( 1973) is excluded in this view of the Sahel.
See Matlock and Cockrum ( 1976) and Swift ( 1977b). Sometimes Gambia and Cape Verde are added to this list of six countries.


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