Increasing Vulnerability To Drought

Since the earliest historical times, drought has been a major hazard in northwest Africa. Historical surveys of drought and other natural calamities have determined that there were 49 major drought-related famines in Morocco during the period from the late ninth century to the early 1900s (Bois, 1957) and at least 26 such episodes in Tunisia from around ad 100 to the late 1800s (Bois, 1944).

While the drought hazard has perhaps always existed in northwest Africa, this hazard has been increasing during the present century (Swearingen, 1992, 1994, 1996a). It has been increasing primarily due to two key processes: (1) expansion of cereal cultivation to drought-prone rangeland and (2) reduction of fallow. During the colonial period, these processes were fostered by large-scale land expropriation, by the dislodging of peasants to marginal lands, by a cereal policy offering high crop prices and other incentives, by agricultural mechanization, which facilitated the mining of marginal areas during periods of higher-than-normal rainfall, and by population pressure associated with rapid population growth. Other significant factors during this period include the gradual loss of peasant ability to stockpile grain as insurance against drought and the progressive substitution of wheat for drought-resistant barley. Since independence, populations in northwest Africa have continued to multiply at rapid rates. High population growth rates, along with neglect of cereal production, gradually precipitated a food security crisis by the early 1980s (Swearingen, 1987b, 1996b). To counter this crisis, all three countries have been making concerted efforts to boost their cereal production. Unfortunately, the policies adopted are further promoting cultivation of drought-prone rangeland and reduction of fallow.

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