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The OASIS project (I)

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | September 30, 2012

UC Berkeley is not afraid of tackling big problems and we have a reputation for innovation. We are also an increasingly multicultural campus with half of the students having one parent born outside the continental USA.  These strengths came together in a unique international meeting held On Friday September 21, on the Clark Kerr campus. It launched the OASIS conference – Organizing to Advance Solutions in the Sahel.

The conference was a partnership between faculty and graduate students belonging to the Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability, the College of Natural Resources, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), colleagues in development agencies and, most important of all, friends and co-workers in the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) and universities in Zaria and Sokoto in northern Nigeria.

In Arabic ‘Sahel’ means ‘shore.’ To the north the Sahara is an endless sea of sand. To the south it turns slowly into a greener pastures. The Sahel is defined by its ecology.  It involves many countries and parts of countries and stretches as a 3 million square kilometer belt of from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

In a continent with many big problems, the Sahel is the part of sub-Sahara Africa that faces some of the biggest.  The Sahel includes countries and regions with the most rapid population growth in the world and it is extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change.

In the first half of the meeting, OASIS conference participants heard about a situation that is somber in the extreme.

  • Currently, 12 to 18 million people are hungry.   Berkeley alumna Basia Tomczyk,a participant in the OASIS conference, had worked recently in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, where 400,000 people have fled to escape hunger and conflict in Somalia and Ethiopia.
  • Another OASIS speaker, Rodio Diallo, works in Mali where half that vast West African country is controlled by a fundamentalist group who have amputated the hands of thieves and stoned a couple accused of premarital sex to death.
  • Dr Michael Werner of the LBNL told the OASIS meeting that by 2100 the average temperature in the Sahel could be 5 to 8OC hotter than today.
  • Professor Zilberman of the College of Natural Resources emphasized how vulnerable many plants are to higher temperatures.
  • Dr Eliya Msiyaphazi Zulu, the president of AFIDEP, and one of Africa’s foremost demographers, showed how the population of the Sahel had exploded from 31 million in 150 to 102 million in 2000 and was projected to reach 340 million in 2050.  By 2100 the population of the region could reach a stunning 600 million.

Let me inject a personal note that may provide a sense of scale and urgency for what is happening in the Sahel. In the early 1980s I was president and CEO of a large non-governmental organization called Family Health International (FHI).  To the surprise of some of my staff, I took FHI into AIDS prevention, launching the first sex worker intervention in Africa. A little later USAID gave the first, and at that time, the only contract to slow HIV in Africa to FHI.

As I said closing the meeting – and it was something I thought about carefully before speaking – I believe that the statistics on population growth and climate change in the Sahel are telling us that it is quite possible that the crisis in the Sahel could bring as much misery and death in the next 30 years as AIDS has brought in the past 30 years.

The story of international assistance is all too often, too little, too late.

Last year the international community spent $6.9 billion on AIDS prevention and treatment in the developing world. Allowing for inflation, that first contract USAID gave to FHI when I ran it in the 1980s was equivalent to one day of the 2011 expenditure on AIDS (allowing for inflation –  about $25 million). Although my staff and I worked 24/7 trying to slow the African AIDS pandemic, in retrospect I fear we made little measurable difference: it was too little, too late.  If we had had the equivalent of one month of today’s current expenditure in 1983 0r 1984, when that terrible epidemic was still beginning. I believe we might have been able to prevent literally millions of deaths from AIDS.

We must not make the same mistake in the Sahel. We must take action now when we have the greatest leverage on the situation.

The OASIS meeting was the first step in building the scientific evidence base and the international network of experts and committed advocates needed to demonstrate the enormity of the issues facing the Sahel along with the options that exist for ameliorating these seemingly overwhelming problems.

The second half of the OASIS meeting focused on solutions. They do exist. I will share them with you in a second OASIS (II) blog later in the week.

I believe that Berkeley and its African partners are well placed to continue to take the lead in an endeavor of great humanitarian and geo-political experience. Please contact me if you have interest, skills or experience and want to contribute in any way.