There's nothing in front of Ameur Saad's old house except for the Sahara.
The world's largest hot desert stretches out endlessly before our eyes, a flattened expanse of granular white sand scattered with shrubs. Should you walk south in a straight line, you would eventually end up in Niger. The terrain would vary, but the essentials would remain the same: parched earth, granules between your teeth.
For the moment, though, we're in Tunisia. It's dusk and the wind whips around us, throwing up the fine desert sand. Cotton scarves are wrapped around our faces, but the sand finds its way into our mouths and up our nostrils, sticking to every part of our body. Small mounds of it pile up at the corner of our eyes and in our pockets. It's not like beach sand, easily brushed off with a whack of a flip-flop. According to the Krumbein phi scale, a logarithmic scale that classifies particles, desert sand is categorized as "very fine sand."
Here in Ameur's childhood village, known as Old Mahlel, it requires a Zen-like level of concentration to accept the grittiness.
Old Mahlel is located a few kilometers outside of Douz, a town in south Tunisia affectionately nicknamed "the gateway to the Sahara," and mostly a tourist stop before long treks through the desert. Now in his mid 40s, Ameur spent his entire life in this village, working as a tour guide and taking care of his animals. But six years ago, his family had to move. The Sahara, which covers 3.6 million square miles, or roughly the size of the entire United States, had steadily encroached onto Old Mahlel. The villagers were effectively pushed out by desertification.
"Desertification is a complicated issue," sighs Nabil Ben Khatra, coordinator at the Observatory of the Sahara and Sahel, an intergovernmental organization based in Tunis that focuses on issues in arid zones across the African continent. The UN officially refers to the process as "the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems" brought on by climate change and aggressive human abuse. As environmentalist Allan Savory said more succinctly in a 2013 TED Talk, desertification is "a fancy word for land that is turning into desert."
The Sahara has gone through cycles of desertification before—it used to be an ocean, after all. But the continued mistreatment of the land with modern means of agricultural production has accelerated today's destruction to the point that the loss of arable land is now projected at 35 times the historical rate. In Tunisia, a North African country comparable in size to the state of Illinois and home to nearly 11 million people, 75 percent of the land is threatened by desertification. The southern part of the country is the hardest hit.
"Our ancestors adopted ways of life that were adapted to the environment," Ben Khatra explains, noting that low-impact and minimal production allowed the land to regenerate. But the pressures of modern living and harmful farming techniques, including overgrazing and deforestation, have all contributed to desertification. Soil erosion has increased the salinity in the water, rendering it unsafe (or at the very least, untasteful) for consumption.
The hardest hit communities are often the poorest, and have no choice but to keep exploiting the soil for resources.
"It's an infernal circle," Ben Khatra says.
Rising sand levels are perhaps the most visually stunning display of desertification's impact on human life. "This was our kitchen," Ameur tells me, sweeping his arm in front of a dilapidated room. Two-and-a-half of the four walls have fallen down, along with the roof, and a well-sized dune of sand comfortably fits inside. "I can still see my mother trying to cook in here, with the sand coming in," he remembers. The sand would regularly find its way into the food, despite his mother's preventative techniques. "It was very difficult."
The UN estimates that by 2045, some 135 million people globally could be displaced by desertification, with the Sahara-Sahel region being most heavily impacted. Until the mid 2000s, Old Mahlel had around 500 inhabitants, mostly agriculteurs. Almost all are gone now, except for one local family and a retired French couple. (They've left for a few weeks, and a mound of sand has reached the top of the house's barrier.) The whole village is a wave of shifting sand dunes that leave us panting as we scramble through the "streets" that separate one crumbling row of houses from another.
"When I come here, I feel my first life," Ameur says, his voice heavy with memory. "There's something that draws me to here. There's a liberty here. You have the desert in front of you. When you walk out in the morning, you see the desert, the space, you take your goats and camels and go out into the desert."
Old Mahlel, like a half-dozen other villages in this region, has been obliterated by the advancement of sand dunes. But Ameur's story is not unique to the area.
As we drive around, we find other abandoned villages. Remnants of houses, stables, and cemeteries dot the landscape. The Sahara has been home to humans for thousands of years. It is historically a place of movement, and many of the residents in this region have nomadic roots. Ameur's grandparents, for instance, were nomadic herders. In the 1960s, however, nomads were forced to settle under a new law by then-President Habib Bourguiba that required all children to be enrolled in school. Hostile conditions have always been a part of the deal with desert living, but in recent years, residents confirmed, the environmental situation has gotten worse.
In a village called Sabria, about 30 kilometers from Old Mahlel, we meet Mbarka, a tiny grandmother. Her wizened face is tattooed in the traditional Berber style, and a swath of dark curls untouched by any gray pokes out from beneath her headscarf. She tells us she was born in the desert, though she doesn't know her exact age; she guesses somewhere around 60 years old. Mbarka has been living in Sabria for the past two decades, and has watched as the sand levels rise and rise. Each morning, she must clear a path out the front door; overnight, sand piles up in front.
"Life is a little hard but we can't change that," Mbarka says stoically. "We do the most we can to protect the food from the sand," she laughs, "but our stomachs are full of it anyway!"
Still, life in the desert is far from easy. Mbarka, like many people her age, has trouble with her vision. Years of sand granules have worn down her eyes, and she can't see clearly anymore. Walking over shifting sand dunes has taken a toll on her legs, and she moves slowly, in pain. There's only so much the villagers themselves can do to prevent the encroachment of the Sahara. They'd like their government to do more.
"We do the most we can to protect the food from the sand, but our stomachs are full of it anyway!"
The Tunisian government has proposed that residents in the area relocate elsewhere. A government official told Ameur, before the 2011 revolution, to "just go to Tunis or Gabes, or somewhere. Why do you want to live in the desert?" Sabria villagers told me that the local government gave villagers the option of assisted relocation. But for many residents, this is their home and their way of life; they have no desire to leave. Instead, Mbarka "would like the government to come with trucks and with materials to take the sand. But they would have to do it often. If they do it once in awhile, nothing will happen."
The regional agricultural office of Douz declined a request for comment.
Relocation and flattening sand dunes is only a temporary solution, though. Yet despite the vastness of the Sahara and Sahel, it is not impossible to slow down or even halt symptoms of desertification. In Burkina Faso, farmer Yacouba Sawadogo successfully used the traditional agrarian technique zaïto rehabilitate damaged soil. Environmentalist and Nobel Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai spearheaded the Green Belt Movement, which planted millions of trees to combat desertification in Kenya.
Tunisia has some advantages: it is small. Compared to the vast terrain of neighboring Algeria and Libya, the desert here is manageable. Tunisia is more politically stable than other African countries like Somalia or Libya, and thus has more resources and finances to allocate to its environment. The Ministry of Agriculture is involved in a variety of programs to combat desertification, including tree planting and building palm leaf fences across dunes.
But still, Ben Khatra tells me, "we must do a lot more."
One of the government's more successful endeavors to manage desertification has been assisting farmers in building palm tree groves. It's a surreal sight, driving down the asphalt roads covered in snaking lines of sand, the sky gray, to suddenly be in the humid green dome of a palm grove. The tall palms act as a natural barrier against wind erosion and sand dunes and protect the surrounding villages.
Ameur's new village, Mahlel, is the relocation site of his former village. It's only a kilometer away from Old Mahlel, but the difference is stark. Across the street from Mahlel is a sizable palm tree grove. There is still sand—a large mound of it encroaches on the local school and must be flattened every few months—but the air is cleaner, and the sand that does enter the homes is manageable.
For the time being, the desert seems to be holding off. The villagers are here to stay.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.