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Letter from Timbuctoo* – Strangled by the sands of time

1985 October 14
by Paul Vallely

For hundreds of years its very name has been a synonym for the most remote place on earth, but today Timbuktu faces a new kind of extremity.

From the 13th century onwards this forbidden city has carried on an impenetrable existence in the heart of Africa. But to its inhabitants and those merchants able to converge on this crossroads of the ancient caravan routes, the town on the fringes of the desert was a haven from the unyielding harshness of the Sahara, a place of rich grazing for cattle and camels, a university town, a revered centre of worship and a market place of both commercial and cultural exchange.

During the last two decades, however, the desert has been reclaiming Timbuktu. There has been drought here for the past 15 years; for the past four it has been increasingly severe and this year the area has had only half as much rain as in the previous year. The sands are moving south. Every year the encroachment continues.

Now the desert has swept around the town and surrounded it entirely. Occasionally it is possible to glimpse beneath the dust the baked clay surface of what was once a fertile loam. But that is rare. Huge dunes of sand are creeping onwards, thousands of tons at the rate of 20 miles a year. The fine, white dust falls imperceptibly from the heavens. Often there is so much of it in the air that the sun is blotted out for days on end. There is an apocalyptic quality to living with the earth above your head for so long.

In the town the streets are full of soft sand. In the courtyard of the bare, mud-walled houses it lies ankle deep.

Twenty years ago it was possible to arrive in Timbuktu by boat along a canal dug from the Niger river. Today the channel is entirely dry, its side cracked and crumbled, with heaps of old rubbish on its bed among which skinny donkeys grub for sustenance. Of the 250-mile canal which stretched further north into the Sahara, half way towards the Taoudennit salt mines, where even today slave labour is said to continue, there remains in places no trace at all. Even the mighty Niger dries up; in a good year it now flows for only seven months.

Deserts, the ecologists say, feed upon themselves and grow. The bare soil and stone reflect more solar radiation back into the atmosphere than do grass and trees. The increased reflectivity keeps the air hotter, disperses cloud and reduces rain. Without rain the grasses on the edges of the desert wither, a process exacerbated by over-grazing and felling trees for fuel. Without vegetation the wind throws more soil into the air. Increased evaporation lowers the moisture content of the earth and further suppresses rain.

The strangulation of Timbuktu has, paradoxically, doubled its population. Most of the merchants who once dominated the place have moved south across the river to the town of Dire. But almost 20,000 nomads have moved down from the desert and settled in the town.

Some aid workers based in the capital of Mali look north and talk about grand schemes with lines of wells dug across the country and trees planted around them to fix the soil. But most of the development workers who live in Timbuktu discount these projects as massively expensive and doomed to failure in a drought which they feel sure is caused by a permanent shift in the climate.

The only development schemes which seem to work on a large scale here are those like the Belgian Ile de Paix irrigation project which grows rice in paddy fields created by giant Archimedes screws drawing water from the Niger. But north of the river, they say, the land is finished.

It is not hard to concur, standing on the edge of the town and gazing towards the dunes which stretch for more than 1,000 miles to the north. In the distance two nomads appear, carrying bundles of kindling on their heads. Dead wood is all this terrain can now produce.

In 1985 the standard spelling for Timbuktu was Timbuctoo

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