Last Updated on December 23, 2022

Mauritania is a country in northwest Africa, and much of its territory is covered by the Sahara Desert, which has been expanding over the past couple of decades due to several factors, including prolonged drought and overgrazing by livestock.

Approximately three-fourths of Mauritania is a desert or semidesert, with nothing but sand in much of the center and northern part of the country.

The desert has been expanding ever since the 1960s as a result of severe draught over long periods of time, but climate change is also believed to be playing a role in the expansion of the desert, as rising global temperatures are leading to more frequent and severe droughts in the region.

Mauritania Desert. Dunes of Adrar, near Chinguetti
Mauritania Desert. Dunes of Adrar, near Chinguetti

The Empty Quarter

The desert plateaus gradually descend toward the northeast to the barren El Djouf, or “Empty Quarter“, a vast region of imponent sand dunes that merges into the Sahara Desert.

To the west, between the ocean and the plateaus, are alternating areas of clayey plains (regs) and sand dunes (ergs), some of which shift from place to place, gradually moved by high winds. The dunes generally increase in size and mobility toward the north.


Sahara Desert in Mauritania

The Sahara covers almost 70% of Mauritania, mostly in the northern part of the country, while the south gets more precipitation, especially during winter. In the desert, there can be flash floods and storms, but a year can go by without any rain, and in some areas even several years can pass without rain.

As a result of extended, severe drought and the effects of climate change, the Mauritania desert has been expanding since the mid-1960s.

Because of global warming there are longer and more persistent draughts with temperatures reaching 50°C (122°F). Because of this, shifting sand dunes have been taking over vegetation, making the desert grow bigger year after year.


Desertification

The expansion of the desert in Mauritania has had significant impacts on the country and its people. For starters, it has made it difficult for people to grow crops and raise livestock, leading to food shortages and poverty. Not only that, but it has also caused the displacement of people who have had to leave their homes due to the lack of resources.

The government of Mauritania has implemented a number of initiatives to address these issues, including efforts to promote sustainable land management and combat desertification.

The ancient town of Chinguetti was founded in 1262 on the bank of a river that has now disappeared into the dunes. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for many centuries it was an important crossroads for caravans transporting salt.

Today, it is struggling to survive the advance of the desert. Local people have to constantly remove windblown sand from the alleys so that wells, homes, and ancient libraries can be defended.

The town is located in an area that was becoming increasingly inhospitable due to desertification and climate change. In 2021, Chinguetti was heavily featured on a BBC documentary called “Life at 50 degrees C“. The documentary focused on the people in Chinguetti and how they were adapting to the changing environment.

Documentary: BBC’s Life at 50°C

Fleeing the Shifting Sands of the Sahara Desert in Mauritania, due to Climate Change

Synopsis: In northern Mauritania, people are seeing first-hand the impact of climate change. Rising temperatures and desertification are wiping out communities and many are being forced to leave their ancestral homes in search of a better life.

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