Lake Faouibine, once one of the largest lakes in West Africa, is now a desert of sand dunes


It was once one of West Africa’s largest lakes, Lake Faouibine. But ever since it completely dried up, communities in northern Mali have had to protect their homes from the encroaching sand dunes. And find new ways to make a livelihood on degraded soil.

More than 200,000 people have been forced to abandon their traditional livelihoods since water began disappearing after catastrophic droughts in the 1970s.

Abdul Karin Ag Al Hassane, a farmer turned herdsman, explains:

“This whole area was covered by water, then the water receded and trees began to grow around the lake, then the trees began to disappear and people began to grow crops where there used to be trees.” During the first rebellion, displaced people arrived. They destroyed the forest. And when the forest was gone, sand dunes were formed.”

Other farmers, such as Mahamadou Usmane, say there is tension between pastoralists and other farmers because of the small amount of fertile land and water.

Constant disputes have led to an increase in crime, he said. “After the harvest, we have to transport it, and that’s dangerous. Even the women you see behind me are at risk. Their corn can be stolen on the way.”

Many have left the area due to lack of economic opportunities. Former farmer Moussa Muhamadou Touré said his family survives on what his son sends home from the capital, Bamako.

Lake Faguibine’s shrinking population will continue to be pressured by drought and high temperatures. The average temperature in northern Mali is expected to rise to 4.7 degrees Celsius — that’s more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another lake in the same area, Mali’s Lake Wegnia, which provides food and water for thousands of residents, is also shrinking due to rising heat and unpredictable rains.

Efforts were made to increase sustainability by restoring the Faguibine wetlands in hopes of turning the area into the breadbasket of the Timbuktu region. But those efforts have been thwarted by waves of conflict, including a recent Islamist uprising, according to a 2016 study published in the African Journal of Aquatic Science.

In the village of Bintagungu, advancing dunes have buried a schoolyard and cracked the foundations of vacant buildings. Hama Abakren is the mayor of the village:

“This is a school for almost 400 students. 400 students. That’s a whole generation. A lost generation, a generation doomed to flee. Or to be recruited.”

Mali and its climate

Home to more than 13 million people, Mali stretches from the Sahara desert in the north to the semi-arid grasslands known as the Sahel in the south. Only 3.8 percent of the country’s land is arable, and increasing use of natural resources combined with prolonged drought has pushed the country toward desertification.

One example of Mali’s growing aridity is Lake Faguibine. These false-color Landsat satellite images of the lake show how it has changed over the decades. The top image is from observations on Jan. 3, 1974, and Dec. 26, 1978. The bottom image is from observations on March 17, 2005 and September 28, 2006. The images, taken with a combination of visible and infrared light, show vegetation in red, water in blue, and bare ground in shades of beige and gray.

Lake Faguibine, located at the end of a series of basins irrigated by the Niger River during its overflow, has experienced considerable fluctuations in water levels since the beginning of the twentieth century, but is among the largest lakes in West Africa when it is at its fullest.

In 1974, the lake was approximately 590 square kilometers (230 square miles) in size. Beginning in the late 1980s, declining precipitation steadily dried up the lake. By the late 1990s, the traditional livelihoods of fishing, farming, and cattle ranching had become impractical. Although normal precipitation resumed after 2000, the lake remained nearly dry and became a desert with sand dunes…

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