This first part of a three-part series on the impact of climate change just north of the Sahara Desert traces the lives of the true nomads in Algeria. Some Algerians continue the tradition of their ancestors, who were ambulant herders. For their animals to graze, nomads need significant amounts of water from lakes or wadis. On the steppes of Djelfa, water scarcity is one of many reasons nomadic populations are slowly evolving to more sedentary lifestyles.
It is only when leaving the sprawling metropolis of Algiers and making one’s way south through the rough-and-tumble gorges of Chiffa that dozens of makeshift tents sprout next to the national highway.
These mini-establishments are a testament to the increased importance of pastoralism and are characteristic of the Algerian steppe, a buffer zone between the verdant Mediterranean coast to the north and the unforgiving Sahara Desert to the south.
The steppe is a semi-arid stretch of land that historically has been claimed as the stomping grounds of ancient Arab nomads such as the Ouled Nail tribe. Smack dab in the middle of the steppe rests the province of Djelfa, a former colonial military post, pockmarked with intermittent salt lakes called chotts and degraded pastoral grazing routes.
In the summer months of June, July and August, when the sun reigns supreme, the scorched earth of Djelfa is one of the Algerian regions that most visibly bears the brunt of climate change. Temperature hikes, increased desertification and the unsympathetic throes of modernity have thrust vulnerable populations that inhabit
The winter and summer migrations
The last time Mohamed Dahmoune embarked on the Achaba and Azzaba migrations was 1984. Then, he was a 31-year-old helping his family manage a sizeable herd of sheep as they travelled laterally within the steppe.
The Achaba migration took place in the winter months, and the nomads would approach the border of the Sahara for grazing purposes and to live in warmer conditions. The Azzaba migration was a summer quest for cooler temperatures on the northern edge of the steppe.
“In my father’s time, we practiced transhumance,” explains Dahmoune. “We used to travel all the way to Morocco, but now it is not the same,” he says, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead.
Often warmly referred to as “El Hadj”, Dahmoune’s long face resembles the topography of his region. It is weathered, crackled and dry, but at the crack of his staff, the former nomad’s face melts into a welcoming smile. He stands at an imposing 6’4”, but the eggshell cheche (Algerian turban) that sits on his bald head adds a few extra inches. Three generations of family members live in harmony with the patriarch in his humble abode, which has no running water and only a few hours of flickering electricity per day.
Nowadays, the only remnant of the thousands of kilometres of migration he used to undertake each year is a guitoune (traditional tent) that El Hadj has pitched a few kilometres from their home, on a rented patch of land. Two pens, with around 80 sheep in each, lie a stone’s throw away.
The causes that have leveraged him out of his comfort zone are many. First and foremost is the degradation of pastoral grazing routes. For centuries, nomads have systematically roamed throughout the steppe, along well-known routes where ample rainfall sustained beds of halfah grass and mugwort.
“The last year that I can remember that had sufficient rain was 2009,” El Hadj recalls. Dahmoune’s observations are corroborated by academics in the region.
“If we take a look at the region over the past 30 years, we can say that it has been particularly affected by seasonal droughts,” says Mohamed Kanoun, a director of pastoral research who has lived in Djelfa since the early 1990s. “Pastoral routes of the region have declined by approximately 27%, while desertification has increased by 11% or 12%.”
Algeria’s National Office of Meteorology corroborated Kanoun’s observations when publishing a 7% decrease in annual cumulative precipitation last year in Djelfa against a 30-year average. Another study published in the Journal of Climate concluded that the Sahara desert has grown by about 10% over the past century.
In addition to unreliable precipitation patterns, vegetation in the Djelfa region suffers from mechanised farming practices and overworking of the semi-arid land.
“When one land is tired, the other is fertile,” El Hadj says, unaware of the wisdom of his words. “Even if I wanted to graze elsewhere, the owner of the land will tell you to get off his land. It is not the same anymore.”
Adaptation, the child of necessity
It is during the religious holiday of Eid Al-Adha that Dahmoune is supposed to make enough profit to last him the rest of the year. Year after year, Algerians from all 58 provinces flock to Djelfa to purchase sheep for ritual slaughter. However, 2020 has been a calamitous year for herders.
In the months leading up to the holiday, local authorities shut down the ovine markets because of the coronavirus pandemic and instituted a prohibition on travel between provinces to limit contamination. With more than four million sheep in the province, Djelfa accounts for more than 14% of the national population, and so the 18 000 households that depend on herding for their living were in heavy competition to sell their livestock and settle their debts. Like many others in the region, El Hadj sustains his herd on credit.
“Whoever does not have the means has nothing. Ideally, I would rent a few hectares for 600 000 or 700 000 dinars per year (equivalent to $4700 or $5500) and then load the troupe into a truck. Some rent land for much more than that, some even rent for double the price.”
Instead, El Hadj has a small patch of land at the foot of a rocky hill that he rents from a cousin for 80 000 dinars ($630) a year. Cleverly circumventing bureaucratic bank loans, herders and investors in the region enter into informal quid-pro-quo partnerships to preserve the craft. Financial capital is exchanged with the generational savoir-faire of herders like Dahmoune, who is himself seeking to cover the cost of purchasing, transporting and maintaining livestock. Once Eid rolls around, profits are split and each goes on his merry way.
Fortunately for Dahmoune, he benefits from a particularly forward-thinking investor that equipped the local well with a solar-powered drawing system. Solar power potential in the Algerian steppe and the Sahara Desert is particularly high. It is also a cleaner and cheaper alternative to working wells with a diesel or electric pump.
On Dahmoune’s small patch of family land, the partners have decided to grow lucerne, which is harvested every 20 to 25 days. The fodder plant adapts particularly well to arid climates and produces efficient yields of what is a healthy energy source for sheep.
A few days before Eid Al-Adha, the local authorities allowed the ovine markets of Djelfa to open up and El Hadj managed to sell some of his sheep to pay some of his debt. The 67-year-old is proof that in an ever-changing world, traditional populations most vulnerable to the brutalities of climate change are often the first to embrace the appropriate solutions.
The research for this article was supported by the Candid Foundation’s journalism grant.