Araouane, Mali — When Ahmed Agda pitched his tent here almost 200 years ago, Araouane was a jewel in the Sahara with a generous well, shade trees, and native grasses. Mr. Agda built a mosque and a successful business selling fresh water and camels to salt and spice traders as they passed through his town on their way to Casablanca, or Taoudenni, or Timbuktu. His sons and grandsons were raised in a bustling community of several thousand people.
The youngest of his great-grandsons, Babiya Sultan, remembers the town with 100 wells, pastures grazed by goats and camels, and a market brimming with produce, but he relates this story with little relish. Today there are no pastures or livestock, and most of the wells have collapsed.
``We have had no important rains since 1969,'' Mr. Sultan says. ``There is little traffic and we have no regular food.''
Tapping underground water reserves to support agricultural and livestock production may well be the last line of defense for Mali, Mauritania, and other Sahelian countries.
``Those underground reserves are the bottom line,'' says Charles Larsimont, head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Mali. ``We know the water is there; we know what it can do. What we need is money to bring it to the surface.''
According to Roger Megelas, project management officer with UNDP's Department of Technical Cooperation for Development, ``If you can find water in northern Mali, in one of the least hospitable climatic regions of the world, there is a chance to fight the desert in neighboring countries with similar geological perimeters.
``Our experts rate the chances of finding similar quantities of water in Mauritania to be equally as good and perhaps only slightly less in Niger and Chad.''
Water is the people's sole means of survival. Each family has a well and sells water by the bucket to traveling camel caravans which carry salt blocks from the mines of Taoudenni to Timbuktu.
Sixteen years of drought have made desert crossings hazardous even for the camel trains, and all but 300 of Araouane's people have moved south within Mali to centers like Timbuktu, Mopti, and Gao, leaving the desert to reclaim their houses. Similar conditions across Africa's Sahel region have driven nearly 100,000 people -- mostly Tuareg nomads -- into urban encampments south of the Niger River, now at its lowest level since 1913.
The official wet season in the Sahel is from June to September, but a United States satellite survey shows that the rainy season for the past 16 years has come two to three weeks later than the historical average and ended six to eight days earlier -- a net loss of almost one month for crops and pasture.
In many areas farmers had nothing to show for the harvest last year. The overall food situation is expected to worsen in coming months as daily temperatures rise well above 100 degrees and burn off what little pasture remains for livestock.
Agricultural experts estimate Mali's projected food deficit for 1985 at 481,000 metric tons. The most optimistic estimate is for a 73,000 metric ton shortfall -- if government requests are met and private traders can meet their import targets. The one hopeful sign is that almost 170,000 metric tons of food from Western donors -- one-third of it from the US -- are already on the docks in Abidjan in the neighboring Ivory Coast.
At least 1.2 million of Mali's 7.7 million people are said to be affected by the drought, with crop yields in the northern region 65 to 70 percent lower than normal last year. Relief agencies estimate there are 20,000 people displaced by the drought around Timbuktu, another 40,000 in and around Gao, and 10,000 in the town of Mopti.
``At first the government asked us not to distribute food aid in Timbuktu itself for fear that it would encourage people to come, so we have been working with groups within a 60-kilometer [37-mile] radius,'' says Dr. Bjorn Tuvesson, who works with a Swedish disaster relief team and the UN Children's Program around Timbuktu.
``But about 5,000 people have come in over the last six months anyway. And now they want UNICEF to open soup kitchens in the town.''
The UN Development Program is midway through a $15 million project to drill 2,000 of an estimated 9,000 wells said to be necessary to give drought-affected populations a fighting chance. Louis Moullard, chief of the program's ground water exploration project estimates that a single well equipped with a manual pump can give four to six families enough water for their personal needs plus a 1,000-square-meter (3,200-square-foot) plot of ground which could be irrigated and farmed by hand.
More than 1,000 wells have already been dug. On the 500-mile salt route between Timbuktu and Taoudenni drilling teams have sunk 45 bore holes and found good water in 35 of them.
The Ministry of the Interior is hoping that with agricultural support, oases can be established every 50 kilometers (32 miles). The aim is to revitalize the caravan trade through villages like Araouane and provide an opportunity for drought refugees to reinhabit the northern regions.