Over many decades our understanding of the impacts of intermittent drought in water-limited environments like the West African Sahel has been influenced by a narrative of overgrazing and human-induced desertification. The desertification narrative has persisted in both scientific and popular conception, such that recent regional-scale recovery ("regreening") and local success stories (community-led conservation efforts) in the Sahel, following the severe droughts of the 1970s-1980s, are sometimes ignored. Here we report a study of watershed-scale vegetation dynamics in 260 watersheds, sampled in four regions of Senegal, Mali, and Niger from 1983-2012, using satellite-derived vegetation indices as a proxy for net primary production. In response to earlier controversy, we first examine the shape of the rainfall-net primary production relationship and how it impacts conclusions regarding greening or degradation. We conclude that the choice of functional relationship has little quantitative impact on our ability to infer greening or degradation trends. We then present an approach to analyze changes in long-term (decade-scale) average rain-use efficiency (an indicator of slowly responding vegetation structural changes) relative to changes in interannual-scale rainfall sensitivity (an indicator of landscape ability to respond rapidly to rainfall variability) to infer trends in greening/degradation of the watersheds in our sample regions. The predominance of increasing rain-use efficiency in our data supports earlier reports of a "greening" trend across the Sahel. However, there are strong regional differences in the extent and direction of change, and in the apparent role of changing woody and herbaceous components in driving those temporal trends.
Keywords: Sahel; West Africa; desertification; drylands; rain-use efficiency.