This is a sample question from Emmanuel in Cotonou.

Avatar2I am trying to get a general sense of the impact of programs to combat desertification in West Africa from 2000 to 2015. How would you go about finding/compiling this type of information? And do we have any idea whether global warming accelerates desertification?

This is a sample answer from Solomon in Addis Ababa.

SolomonMekonnen100x100Those are big issues and big questions! I could certainly not answer them in a few hours but I found some key resources that might help you to make progress in your research.


1) Clarify the initial question

You asked two different questions:

  1. what is the impact of efforts to combat desertification in West Africa from 2000 to 2015?
  2. does global warming accelerate desertification?


2) Impact of efforts to combat desertification in West Africa

Women-sowing-okra-in-zai-hoI suspect that there are organizations and/or programs that are dedicated to this precise question and that may provide authoritative data. So I do a quick search with desertification (combat OR fight) (data OR stats OR statistics). I use those words rather than more precise ones such as ‘west africa’ because at this point I just want to see which initiatives are seen as the general references. Those words are most likely to be found on their websites. Here’s what I find:

The other links don’t seem to be directly relevant. The OECD provides financial statistics on funding flows but nothing on the impact of funded programs.

I conclude that the best source to get comprehensive reports about desertification programs is the UNCCD. The following video shows how I access reports and data on programs against desertification in West Africa.

To look for a regional report on West Africa, I mouse-over ‘Regions’, click on ‘Africa’ and then Sub Regional Action Programmes (bottom right-hand) where a report by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) can be downloaded (PDF). It dates from 2013 and contains general information on ‘achievements and constraints’ but nothing to quantify progress.

So I look for national reports, mouse-over ‘The Convention’ in the top menu, click on Action Programmes and then on Action programmes in Africa to access all national reports on desertification including those from West Africa. Those seem to be general descriptions of activities and most seem outdated.

prais_logoAt the bottom of the page, a logo to the UNCCD’s Performance Review and Assessment of Implementation System (PRAIS) catches my attention. This is where countries that have signed the UNCCD convention must report on their progress. Clicking on Submitted data in the top menu brings me to a page with multiple links to individual country reports, covering different years form 1999 to 2012. And the bad news is that they’re all in the… PDF format, a nightmare for retrieving data.

helpdeskThey’re huge reports (hundreds of pages) and the data is buried in each of them. If you have a lot of time, you might want to convert some of their tables into a machine readable format such as Excel (this is called ‘scraping‘) to further analyze the data. If so, there is a variety of tools such as ScraperWiki. But at this point, I would suggest you click on the Helpdesk link on the top right hand corner of the PRAIS site and… scream for help! They’re the experts and might save you a lot of time.


3) The link between global warming and desertification

My best guess to answer this is to look for scientific literature on the topic. This is typically the type of question that may have been the subject of research work. So I recommend using Google scholar, a search engine that focuses on scientific and technical publications.

Before anything, it’s very important to define the keywords that I will be using. Words like ‘desertification’ and ‘global warming’ make no doubt. I can add ‘climate change’ and, I would guess, the word ‘link’ because I think it is likely used in a paper that would explore the relationship between those two concepts.

I also need to specify the logical relationships between those words, so as a start I try this query: desertification link “global warming”OR “climate change”. Note that I use…

  • quotation marks “” around words that must appear side by side, as if they were one single word (“global warming”);
  • ‘OR’ between synonyms;
  • an empty space between words that must all be present in the results (an empty space means ‘AND’ for Google).

TGoogleScholarhe results (on the right) include some articles that are directly relevant to what I am looking for.

The beauty of Google Scholar is that the information it crawls has been reviewed and validated by peers or editorial committees. The page of results shows how many times each article has been cited. I can easily restrict my search to recent publications by clicking on the time periods listed on the left. But I also get what I am asking for: long, complex publications written in expert jargon that may take time to digest.

For a more straightforward answer, I try the same query with Google’s general search engine.

In which case, the very first result, from The Green Facts Initiative, a Brussels-based non-profit whose mission is “to bring the factual content of complex scientific consensus reports on health and the environment to the reach of non-specialists”, provides this answer:

The effect of global climate change on desertification is complex and not yet sufficiently understood. On the one hand, higher temperatures can have a negative impact through increased loss of water from soil and reduced rainfall in drylands. On the other hand, an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can boost plant growth for certain species. Although climate change may increase aridity and desertification risk in many areas, the consequent effects of biodiversity loss on desertification are difficult to predict.

I hope this helps you to further research the topic.