Saving lives and reducing conflict in the Sahel region

Blog by Cordaid 

In the troubled North of Burkina Faso, a locally-led humanitarian response not only saves lives. It also eases off pressure on fought-over resources and diminishes sources of conflict. Newly constructed water points decrease tensions related to water scarcity and are a source of social cohesion.

One of 12 newly constructed and rehabilitated water points in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso. © OCADES, Caritas Burkina

Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region, bordering Mali and Niger, is one of those places where climate crisis and armed violence reinforce one another.

Terror-sowing armed groups started ravaging this region and then spread to other parts of the country, pushing the government to declare a state of emergency in 2018. Initially, a lot of the attacks targeted state structures. Even health centers have been attacked. Then violence also turned communal. Clashes were loosely structured along tense religious and ethnic lines, between Fulani herders and more sedentary farming communities.

Climate change-related scorching droughts and devastating floods have put a lot of pressure on land and water, creating new sources of conflict.

Today, conflicts have become inextricably complicated, with casualties among all backgrounds and cultures.

Spiralling conflict

Burkina’s Sahel Region is predominantly and traditionally a land of nomadic herders and their grazing cattle. Land and water are their alpha and omega. But climate change-related scorching droughts and devastating floods have put a lot of pressure on these dwindling resources. Creating new sources of conflict.

With NGO support, the state had demarcated the passing zones or transhumance corridors herders use as grazing grounds for their cattle. In the dry season, cattle migrate to more humid areas in the east and return to their place of origin during the rainy season. But with the increasing scarcity of fertile arable land, many farmers are exploiting these passing zones. As a consequence, the corridor is blocked. Herders who try to make their way through, sometimes damage the crops of farmers.

A joint response of five Dutch aid organisations, counters gender-based violence, promotes education and health care, and provides food and livelihood assistance.

This tense situation caused a downward spiral of armed conflict and collapsing agriculture and food-producing systems. By September this year, over a million people had forcibly left their belongings, including their cattle, and fled to safer grounds. Floods, like the ones of August and September, have caused many of the displaced to flee again.

Abandoned cattle never remain abandoned very long. Rivalling cattle breeders go after the animals. Creating yet another source of conflict for years to come.

A joint response of the Dutch Relief Alliance

At the start of 2020, the Dutch Relief Alliance reached out to the population of these much-plagued northern regions of Burkina Faso. A joint response of five Dutch aid organisations, counters gender-based violence, promotes education and health care and provides food and livelihood assistance.

Together with OCADES, our Caritas Burkina partner who has been providing frontline relief and development assistance since 1961, Cordaid is doing its share of this joint response.

“In the areas of Djibo and Dori, in the Sahel Region, we have assisted displaced families who, surviving outside IDP camps, had not yet received humanitarian assistance,” says frontline humanitarian aid worker André Gountan, who heads OCADES.

Families with young children, female, elderly, and orphan headed households and households with disabled, widowed, and elderly members were the first to be selected for assistance. Altogether 500 households with an average of 7 members, received food items during a period of three months. This support allowed the displaced families to prepare 3 meals a day, with ingredients from 5 different food groups. Distributions included rice, cereals like sorghum, maize, beans, oil, and salt.

Food assistance

For many, this food assistance came in the nick of time. Having left everything behind, people had nothing left to eat. The support, organised in collaboration with local food shops, allowed parents to feed their children and themselves. And to prepare tô, the staple dish made of sorghum or maize flour.

“The water points, serving a population of over 14.000 people, are like gold in these drought-affected areas.”

André Gountan from OCADES Caritas Burkina

Initially, the plan was to distribute food vouchers, instead of distributing food. Logistically this is less expensive, and it gives more ownership to persons on the receiving end. Unfortunately, for security reasons, field workers abandoned these plans.

Communities who had welcomed the displaced families in their midst also received food assistance. “Host communities have a hard time too, coping with hunger, poverty. We address their needs too. And also, not assisting them would create tensions,” Gountan explains.

Water-supply infrastructure

In the same area, where these 500 displaced families had sought refuge, OCADES constructed nine new water points and rehabilitated three dysfunctional ones. “Finding water points is hard”, continues Gountan. “We had to bore deeper than 50 meters to access safe drinking water sources. But it’s worth it. The water points, serving a population of over 14.000 people, are like gold in these drought-affected areas. People use them for household purposes, for small scale farming, and for the little livestock they still have.”

Drinking water supply for the internally displaced in Petit Paris (in the Sahel Region).  © OCADES, Caritas Burkina

Local residents as well as displaced people were trained in water point maintenance. “Host community members and displaced families not only make good use of the boreholes together, but they also share responsibility for them as well,” according to Gountan. “This way, the water points considerably decrease tensions related to water scarcity. And they are a source of social cohesion.”


Finally, even in the remotest parts of Burkina Faso, Covid-19 leaves its mark. “Though the number of cases is still very low, we have to be on our guard and do everything to stop the virus. This is why, among the households we assisted, we also distributed soap, face masks, disinfecting gel, and other hygiene items.”

Looking at how corona rages in Europe and the US, Gountan expresses his heartfelt concern and solidarity. “At the same time, if we look at our country from a coronavirus perspective, we can only thank God and the solidarity of certain NGOs that, so far, few people in our country have been affected by this global health crisis”, he concludes.