Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN)

As a native of the Timbuktu region in Mali, West Africa, one of the most unstable areas of the country, I have been an eyewitness to the devastating effects of climate variability and change on people’s lives—affecting livelihoods, contributing to conflict, and even impacting access to education.

Mali is one of the three poorest countries in the world, ranked 176th on the 2015 Human Development Index. Subsistence cultivation, pastoralism, mining and fishing are some of the main activities in the country. A landlocked nation that is mostly desert or semi-desert, Mali is about 1.24 million square kilometers (478,764 square miles), with a total population of about 18 million as of 2016. The Niger River is considered the country’s life stream, supporting the provision of water, irrigation, transportation, and agriculture.

Because Mali’s population sustains itself on subsistence agriculture and pastoralism and inhabits dry-land areas that are poorly connected to markets and heavily dependent on rainfall, the majority of the population is highly vulnerable to change. Eighty percent of livelihoods depend on the use of land and water, so to ignore emerging pressures on natural resources runs the risk of conflict situations developing. Exposure to weather changes (drought) and changes affecting productive assets and output (illness, crop pests, animal diseases) has historically led to major crises of food insecurity and widespread malnutrition in Mali. It is estimated that more than 25 percent (over 4 million) of the Malian population are chronically food insecure, and around 1.7 million are permanently at risk of hunger.

Alhousseyni Maiga (far right), participating in a meeting with CIESIN team members of the new project, Geo-referenced Infrastructure and Demographic Data for Development (GRID3), the focus of his internship.

Climate Change Amplifies Conflict

Researchers are finding that climate change acts as an amplifier of conflict. According to the Brookings Institute, inter-group violence increases 14 percent for each percentage change in average temperature and rainfall. Professor Steve Harmon of Pittsburgh State University notes, “Water shortages linked to global warming is one of the factors fueling the latest Tuareg revolt in Mali”. In addition, Dona Stewart, former US military analyst points out, “environmental issues certainly can exacerbate the economic and political drivers of conflict.” This is particularly true of northern and central Mali.

CIESIN is helping build coastal resilience to climate change in mangrove communities of Sierra Leone, as part of the USAID West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change project. SERVIR-West Africa is another project in West Africa, working with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, to develop applications based on remote sensing to address food security, fresh water availability, and hazards in several countries in West Africa.

 

Only 10% of the population lives in the north. According to a 2016 World Bank report, the delivery of services in such a large territory is challenging, affecting geographic equity and social cohesion. High population growth rates and drought especially in this region have fueled food insecurity, poverty, and instability. For forty years, the North (Gao and Timbuktu regions) has suffered one of the severest droughts of its history, and Central Mali has been undergoing severe drought for many years.

The most visible and direct effect of the drought is the impact on farming. Livestock is decimated, water is scarce, and farmers and their families are starving along with their herds. Consequently, parents are unable to pay for their children’s school fees. (Like many West African countries, Mali requires annual fees to attend public school.)


Harmonious Melting Pot

My native village M’bouna, 100 km from Timbuktu, was a small melting pot where people used to live in peace and harmony. We had people from all different regions of Mali, as well as from African countries such as Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania and Algeria. It was a prosperous village situated on the banks of the Faguibine Lake. People from all around the country would come to farm, to fish, to do trade or to work for the government. The Algerians and Mauritanians were the big traders, importing goods like sugar, powdered milk, fabric, and clothes. They also exported local goods like woven fabric. People from Niger and Nigeria exported fish to their countries.

My memories of that period of childhood are simply wonderful. In Grade 1, we had about 100 students in school, children of different colors, backgrounds, and cultures. In the daytime, when we were not playing together, we were in the forest hunting for small game. At night, especially when the moon was bright, we would gather by age groups to sing, dance, and play around until the late hours of the night. I have special memories of one day after a big rain, playing soccer with my mates. I felt so happy. I just sat on the ground, watching the other kids running after the ball, laughing and shouting to each other joyfully. I asked myself: “Am I going to have to leave this paradise one day? Is there any place on this earth where there exists such joy and happiness?” This wonderful and peaceful environment is where I spent my youth, growing up and attending school, up to the sixth grade. A paradise that was about to disappear when the drought descended.

This fourth update to CIESIN’s flagship gridded data product, Gridded Population of the World (GPWv4), uses population and boundary data from hundreds of organizations around the world, including national statistics offices, mapping agencies, and planning agencies, to depict the distribution of human population across the globe. Among other applications, GPW has helped estimate the long-term cost of heat wave subsidies to workers in China; provided insights into the impact of climate and population change on human exposure to the Aedes aegypti (Dengue- and Zika-carrying) mosquito; helped estimate tornado impacts; and explore the use of mobile phones on political mobilization in Africa. This fourth update to CIESIN’s flagship gridded data product, Gridded Population of the World (GPWv4), uses population and boundary data from hundreds of organizations around the world, including national statistics offices, mapping agencies, and planning agencies, to depict the distribution of human population across the globe. Among other applications, GPW has helped estimate the long-term cost of heat wave subsidies to workers in China; provided insights into the impact of climate and population change on human exposure to the Aedes aegypti (Dengue- and Zika-carrying) mosquito; helped estimate tornado impacts; and explore the use of mobile phones on political mobilization in Africa.

 

The Harvest Fails, the Village is Distressed

The recent Groundswell report co-authored by CIESIN is the first to study internal climate migration, focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. CIESIN’s work in the area of climate change encompasses migration, adaptation capacity-building, environment and conflict, vulnerability mapping, climate modelling, and biodiversity conservation. The recent Groundswell report co-authored by CIESIN is the first to study internal climate migration, focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. CIESIN’s work in the area of climate change encompasses migration, adaptation capacity-building, environment and conflict, vulnerability mapping, climate modelling, and biodiversity conservation.

 

In my village, M’bouna, in the region of Timbuktu, when there was no harvest, few villagers could afford more than one meal per day, much less school fees. Six years later, as the drought persisted and one harvest after another failed, the original enrollment of around 100 students had dwindled to nine students who remained and made it to the sixth grade. Students were dismissed because their parents could no longer afford school supplies or school fees. Many families left the village and migrated to more hospitable areas with relatively more rainfall. I myself left to attend school in Mopti, living with a relative. The village population fell from 3,000 to 200. Around that time, the conflict started in the north.In May 2012, at the peak of the conflict, I visited the village. What I saw was heartbreaking. The village was unrecognizable – it looked like an abandoned place. People looked like zombies and you could see misery and sadness everywhere. The fright on the faces, the loss of all the years of hard work resonated in me like a solemn, dire, immediate, and strong call to action. Since that day, helping to address this situation became my dream. A dream that I have been pursuing since then. A dream that led me to Duke and later to CIESIN.

 

New Skills and the Value of Engaged Colleagues

Since May 31, I have been doing an internship at The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). CIESIN is a center within the Earth Institute at Columbia University, that specializes in the visualization of spatial data and its integration with earth sciences, on interdisciplinary topics related to human interactions in the environment. This internship has given me a great opportunity to learn practical skills and best practices in research on environmental issues in African countries and enabled me to acquire relevant skills that I can apply to my professional career. It has also been a chance to experience working with skilled colleagues from diverse backgrounds, in a very different cultural setting.
My focus this summer is working closely with the project Geo-Referenced Infrastructure and Demographic data for Development (GRID3.) GRID3 is facilitating the collection, analysis, integration, dissemination, and utilization of high-resolution population, infrastructure, and other reference data by developing countries, to help advance their development goals. The project aims to increase developing country capability in mapping population distribution. The goal is to insure that everyone, especially the most vulnerable are counted; refining development priorities, extending, and improving the scope and efficacy of a countries’ development efforts.

HazPop is a cell phone app that displays recent data on hazards such as earthquakes and tornados in relation to population, major infrastructure, and satellite imagery. It is one of several mapping tools and services developed under CIESIN’s main program, the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), which also develops and distributes data sets on socioeconomic and environmental themes, for integration with earth science and remote sensing data. HazPop is a cell phone app that displays recent data on hazards such as earthquakes and tornados in relation to population, major infrastructure, and satellite imagery. It is one of several mapping tools and services developed under CIESIN’s main program, the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), which also develops and distributes data sets on socioeconomic and environmental themes, for integration with earth science and remote sensing data.

 

New Software Opens Doors

During my time at CIESIN, I have been surrounded by extraordinary people who exposed me to ArcGIS, one of the most important software systems in the field of geographic information systems (GIS). ArcGIS is used to create and help analyze data, compile geographic data, and share and discover geographic information. It enables the mapping of geographic information in a range of applications and managing geographic information in a database.
The system provides a kind of infrastructure for making maps and geographic information available throughout an organization, across a community, and openly on the Web. At CIESIN, a very patient, professional and supportive team has trained me, and I have been using ArcGIS to help clean and analyze geospatial data for GRID3 Countries.

Another wonderful opportunity I have at CIESIN is being mentored by an entire team of specialists in climate change, including two experts focused specifically on climate change in West Africa and in Mali. This has been a huge asset to me because I am planning to do my master’s project on climate change and climate variability in Mali, but also because it has equipped me with the skills and experiences to address climate change and variability issues in Mali and throughout Africa.

 

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a collaboration with Yale University, in association with the World Economic Forum, to measure progress toward environmental goals; the 2018 EPI assesses 180 countries. Other collaborative project and data development partners of CIESIN include the Facebook Connectivity Lab, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NASA entities, the ICSU Committee on Data for Science and Technology, and WorldPop, to name just a few. The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a collaboration with Yale University, in association with the World Economic Forum, to measure progress toward environmental goals; the 2018 EPI assesses 180 countries. Other collaborative project and data development partners of CIESIN include the Facebook Connectivity Lab, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NASA entities, the ICSU Committee on Data for Science and Technology, and WorldPop, to name just a few.

 

 

Assessment, Hopes, and Plans

My internship has improved my research skills in institutional and stakeholders’ analysis, situational analysis, and risk assessments for African countries, especially for Sub-Saharan countries.

By the end of this internship, I hope to have contributed to CIESIN’s project objectives through the research skills related to stakeholder analysis and situational analysis which I developed in my program at the Sanford School of Public school at Duke University. I also hope to improve these skills by continuing to put them in practice at CIESIN and subsequently apply some of the information and the skills towards my master’s project.

Finally, I hope to use my newfound skills not just to fulfill my academic requirements and professional aspirations for peace and conflict resolution, but to contribute to building peace in my village, region, throughout Mali—and beyond, in the Sahel, in Africa, and throughout the world.

I will only rest once peace becomes a reality as it once was in these wonderful regions. This is only possible by addressing climate variability and change issues and building the resilience of communities to successfully adapt to these changes.

My vocational shift to a focus on climate change leverages my background as a teacher and my 20 years experience working in the field of education in the needy rural communities of the West African countries of Mali, Senegal, and Burkina-Faso, empowering me more effectively to touch the lives of generations of children and parents in these countries and beyond.

After achieving my masters, I will be able to influence national policies on climate variability and change, and on education in Mali, reinforcing peace and unity.


Acknowledgements

My heartfelt thanks and gratitude go to everyone who enabled me to be here on this life-changing journey. I thank Rotary International for the generous master’s fellowship that has allowed me to study at the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, as well as to come to CIESIN for my summer Applied Field Experience.

I thank every single Rotarian around the globe, whose involvement with Rotary makes such opportunities available.

I am thankful to the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center’s Susan Carroll and Amy Cole for their continuous support.

I thank Rotary District 9101, for sponsoring my fellowship application.

I thank CIESIN and GRID3 staff for their warmth, professionalism, tremendous support, coaching, and help, making this internship so formative and memorable. It has been a privilege to spend time together with them, learning ArcGIS, such an important tool for development practitioners. I hope the skills learned here this summer will serve humanity across the globe.

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