The Sahel is a demographic bomb

Demography is a human geography and the statistics are there. In Africa, in the Sahel in particular, we are witnessing a dizzying change of scale. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion human beings on earth, including 229 million in Africa. Today, there are 7.7 billion inhabitants, including 1.3 billion in Africa. In 30 years, we will be about 10 billion, including 2.5 billion in Africa in 2050.

The G5 Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad) will have 83.7 million inhabitants in 2019, of which about 50% are under 15 years old, and 196 million in 2050. There is a real urgency to draw the consequences to avoid what always happens in history in case of overpopulation according to demographer Michel Garenne: departures, wars, famines, epidemics, because “there will not be enough space and resources for everyone” he says.

The mission of Humanitarian Challenges is to alert in order to act and build responses that are equal to the risks. The governance of these countries must assume all its responsibilities, development must imperatively integrate demography, and finally, it is essential to closely involve the populations in a reduction of births in a perspective of sustainable improvement of living conditions.

Africa: one in four of the world’s population by 2050.

Share of the African population (in billions and percentage) of the world population. Charts based on United Nations projections

For a long time, Africa was presented as an underpopulated continent due to its geographical characteristics and the poor knowledge of the continent. Since the 1970s, census campaigns have been initiated to enable governments to measure future demographic challenges. Subsequently, the international conference on population in Mexico City in 1984 formalized the importance of demography and the awareness of African leaders on this subject. Cooperative efforts led to the Kilimanjaro Programme of Action, which was composed of non-binding recommendations. The objective was to provide states with a real population policy. Decades have passed and African demography, regularly at the center of discussions at international summits, is now presented as the time bomb of the 21st century.

Nigeria is by far the most eloquent example: by 2050 the country will have 401 million inhabitants, the third most populous country in the world behind India and China. Underlying this exponential demography are the many development challenges. The second characteristic of Niger’s demography is the youthfulness of its population: 50% were under 15 years old in 2017. This is seen both as an economic strength and as a danger, given the structural deficit in public services and the security problems.

It is simplistic to draw a single picture for the entire continent, but it has been shown that Africa has challenged the certainties and patterns of demographic change. It is the continent that has nuanced the alleged universality of the demographic transition model created from the European phenomenon in the 19th century. Until now, the reference model was the following: a significant drop in mortality thanks to an improvement in living conditions, health and education, should mechanically lead to a significant drop in birth rates. Demographers also estimated that it would take about 60 years to achieve fertility control. The sociological logic specific to certain African regions nuances the traditional pattern. In the end, the decline in fertility rates is not just a mechanical process and is not as proportional to the decline in mortality as demographers had predicted. The United Nations has had to revise its forecasts upwards by slowing the decline in the fertility rate per woman.

Demographic trends in the Sahel region

Charts based on United Nations projections.

The first prerequisite for studying the demographics of the Sahel is the definition of the region itself. Geographically, the Sahel extends across the continent, bordered to the north by the Sahara. The countries it covers are Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. The Sahel is not limited to national borders: it is an area that tends to expand in this period of climate change and desertification. Its future is no longer limited to the six countries mentioned: the investment plan on global warming for the Sahel countries (2019-2030) includes 17 countries, the Inter-State Committee to combat drought in the Sahel includes 13 states. Conversely, the G5 Sahel is referred to only as Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. From a regional and cross-border perspective, the G5 Sahel, created in 2014, has a mandate to restore a security climate conducive to the development of the region. Common characteristics link these countries to each other through climatic (arid or semi-arid), meteorological (alternating rainy and dry seasons), geographic (landlocked countries and low population density with an average of 15 inhabitants/km2), social (transhumance and cross-border ethnicities) and economic (agropastoral system) parameters.

On the scale of the continent, the demographic weight of the Sahel remains relatively stable. The Sahelian population will represent 8.4% of the African population in 2020, 9.6% in 2050 and 11% by 2100. With different volumes, each country follows a similar pattern, with the exception of Niger. In 2019, this country has 21.48 million Nigeriens, the highest growth rate in Africa (3.8% according to the World Bank) and the highest fertility rate with an average of 6.5 children per woman according to UN data.

Charts based on United Nations projections.

Beyond the demographic facts: challenges for the G5 Sahel countries.

In Mali, since 2012, the security crisis has continued to intensify and spread throughout the region. The tri-border area, at the intersection of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, appears to be the epicenter of the crisis. In this asymmetric war, the stalemate in the fighting since August 2014 against the myriad of jihadist groups1 reflects the difficulties of the G5 Sahel. But what links can we really establish between this security deterioration and the demographic explosion? In this crisis, the demographic parameter should be seen as an amplifying element that affects both the roots of the conflict and its consequences. The G5 Sahel countries had structural and security fragilities that existed prior to the demographic explosion; the phenomenon only reinforces the disruptions and dysfunctions of the system.

Summary of the impact of the demographic factor on the various sectors.

**The demographic dividend corresponds to the situation following the rapid decline in high fertility. The proportion of people of working age is favorable: there are few elderly people and few dependent children. This was a period of strong economic stimulation that benefited emerging Asia enormously. In this case, the validity of the phenomenon is questioned. Fertility decline is too slow and employment prospects are poor.

And the humanitarian needs?

The security context is deteriorating, climate change is accelerating, the territorial footprint of states is small and demographic pressure is intensifying: the equation makes humanitarian needs numerous and growing. How can we guarantee access to water and food security for the coming decades in such a fragile context? The question is posed for the 10 billion human beings on earth in 2050, but the answers are even more uncertain in the Sahel. The latest OCHA figures published this November give an overview of humanitarian needs:

  • Displaced persons: victims of violence, there are 4.1 million displaced persons in the Sahel in 2019 with a tenfold increase in just one year for the tri-border area, or 860,000 people including 486,000 Burkinabes. According to USAID, the regions hosting the most refugees are the Sahelian part of Burkina Faso, the Mopti region in Mali and Tillabéri in Niger. The phenomenon of displacement is twofold: temporary or permanent, internal or external, it can be triggered by security instability and by environmental deterioration (water stress and flooding). Climatic migrations are announced as the “migratory bomb” for the next decades.
  • Urgency: The loss of livelihoods as a result of displacement is exacerbating tensions and increasing food needs. 6.1 million people need emergency assistance, including 3.9 million in Mali, 1.5 million in Burkina Faso and 700,000 in western Niger (OCHA). According to the WFP, 2.4 million people need food aid in the central Sahel, including 1.8 million people affected and 400,000 children suffering from malnutrition in the tri-border region. In a region where water is also a source of tension, the NGO Solidarités International is taking action. Through the installation of Improved Pastoral Hydraulic Systems, the distribution of drinking water kits and awareness campaigns, the NGO is mobilizing to provide better access to water, hygiene and sanitation in Mali (Kidal), and in northern Burkina Faso.
  • Needs: To meet the urgent needs of 4.7 million people in the Tri-border area, $717 million is needed. According to the latest figures, less than half of the funds have been received. USAID in its July 2019 report warns of the difficulties in accessing the populations with the greatest needs, which prevents the estimation of needs and the distribution of aid.

The humanitarian situation is alarming as the security situation continues to deteriorate and the population continues to grow. The demographic explosion is underway and if the phenomenon cannot be significantly reduced in the short and medium term, the acceleration of the demographic transition can be made possible through immense development efforts while involving the population in these policies. States seem to be gradually taking the necessary measures to meet the demographic challenge. The most concerned, Niger, has adopted a National Population Policy since August 2019. Governments, NGOs and institutions will have to work together to meet the needs and challenges of this period of demographic transition.

Alicia Piveteau


1 – For a better understanding of the implementation of GATs, the research center “European Council on Foreign Relations” proposes a mapping of the actors:

2 – United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). Update for the MDG Database: Contraceptive Prevalence & Unmet Need for Family Planning.


For more information:

  • DUMONT Gérard-François, Géographie des populations, Paris, Armand Colin, 2018.
  • GARENNE Michel, « Le Sahel est une bombe démographique », Le Monde, 2017.
  • GUENGANT Jean-Pierre, F. May John, “Les défis démographiques des pays Sahéliens”, Etudes, 2014.
  • PISON Gilles, Atlas de la population mondiale, Paris, Autrement, 2019.
  • SMITH Stephen, La Ruée vers l’Europe. La jeune Afrique en route pour le Vieux Continent, Grasset, Paris, 2018.
  • Rapport d’étude n°6, Prospective Sahel, Observatoire Défense et Climat, 2018.
  • Alternatives Humanitaires, “Démographie : des chiffres et des maux”, n°12, 2019.