Once there was a lake: Study highlights complexity of vulnerability to environmental change

Without consultation, central governments risk making a bad situation worse.
Malian girls stand in the shade in Kidal, North of Mali. Photo MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

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OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Life had always been precarious for the pastoralists, fishers and farmers near Lake Faguibine, west of the fabled city of Timbuktu in arid northern Mali.

Then, slowly, the lake dried up.

In the ensuing years, local people adapted to the changes this wrought — among them, the transformation of the dry lakebed into forest.

Now, these already vulnerable communities must adapt further in the face of climate change and variability — but how they adapt to these risks varies depending on a multitude of factors including age, gender, ethnicity and livelihood, according to a recent study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Complicating matters is the fact that the strategies that local people use to cope and adapt differ from the ones that local and national authorities envision for the population.

“This shows the complexities of adaptation to environmental and other changes are not understood or taken into account at the district and national levels,” said CIFOR scientist Houria Djoudi, the study’s lead author. “To understand this complexity there is a need to use a broader gender framework, which includes age, ethnicity, professional background and wealth.”

While the study was confined to a few communities in northern Mali, it offers lessons in how widely climate adaptation techniques can differ within communities — and in the importance of consulting closely with local people when making large-scale adaptation plans or vulnerability assessments.


The complexities and diversity of coping and adaptation mechanisms among these West African communities were profound.

While all groups, be they sedentary farmers or pastoralists, men or women, saw mobility and animal husbandry with cattle, sheep and goats as a major adaptive strategy, other strategies were unique to specific groups and dependent on gender, the study found.

Women believed the best long-term way to cope with the changing climate was to educate their children, the research found. Men, on the other hand, perceived out-migration as one of the most important and necessary adaptive options available to them to diversify their livelihoods.

When men decide to migrate out of their communities, women perceived this as more of a cause of their vulnerability than an adaptive solution to a changing climate. This is because women find themselves with even heavier workloads when men leave the communities, as they must take on tasks traditionally handled by men — such as small-scale herding, agricultural labor, or producing charcoal.

But even this does not tell the whole complex story of adaptation to climate variability or change. “Although we noticed that out-migration by men could cause work overloads for the women,” said Djoudi, “we also noticed that socially, the women began to assume roles and responsibilities that previously were not culturally acceptable, and this also opens new opportunities.”

Lake Faguibine’s shift to forested land provides a prime example.


After the lake dried up, Djoudi said, trees invaded the lakebed. One was an endemic species, Acacia raddiana; the other was an invasive species of thorny tree, Prosopis julifora, introduced several years earlier by a development project. The Prosopis trees became a source of charcoal and income for the women living around Lake Faguibine.

If top-down strategies are not perceived as useful and feasible at the local level, they have a high risk of failure

Maria Brockhaus

But because previously the women had never made or sold charcoal — typically a man’s task — they were vulnerable to exploitation by middlemen who controlled the charcoal value chain in local markets, and the women were not able to transport the charcoal to a market where they would have received better prices. Though they had adapted by taking on this new and traditionally male-owned income-generating activity, the study reported, there was no engagement from development agencies or authorities to enable women to take full advantage of this opportunity.

This was exacerbated when the state then claimed ownership of the lakebed. By now, producing charcoal was ecologically useful — the lakebed had become a dense, thorny forest of the invasive Prosopis trees. After the state’s takeover, though, official permission was required to produce charcoal from the lakebed, further hindering the women’s adaptive strategies.

In addition, CIFOR’s research showed that development projects targeting women had not integrated climate change and variability into their planning. Rather, most activities have been built around irrigated agriculture, which is highly vulnerable in the face of erratic climate conditions in northern Mali.


This work reveals gaps in the processes used to develop Mali’s National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPA) intended to frame adaptation to climate change in the country. The lesson that emerges, the study’s authors say, is that all NAPAs must not just be truly participatory and inclusive if they are to succeed, but in countries as ecologically, ethnically and culturally diverse as Mali, adaptation planning has to be done regionally or even locally to integrate communities and decentralized government services.

Combining different but complementary kinds of knowledge — local and scientific — as well as communities’ past experiences with climate variability are key.

While local communities may cope with ecological changes in an autonomous way, long-term resource management planning under climate change is lacking, the report indicates.

Mali’s recurrent challenges — droughts and erratic weather; civil unrest and displacement; ambiguity of rights to forests; limited access to financial and technical resources; and the lack of two-way knowledge exchange with local, district and national authorities — mean that local communities often must turn to short-term coping strategies rather than long-term sustainable adaptive strategies.

Unless development interventions take these complexities into account, the study concludes, they may actually disrupt local adaptation efforts, promote inappropriate adaptation measures and waste opportunities for sustainable long-term development.

“There is a lesson here for development planners and policy-makers,” said CIFOR Senior Scientist Maria Brockhaus, a co-author of the study. “If top-down strategies are not perceived as useful and feasible at the local level, they have a high risk of failure.”

For more information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Houria Djoudi at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was funded in part by the European Union. 

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