Climate change threatens end of trail for Niger's nomadic herders

Nomadic herders are among the world's most exposed communities when it comes to the impact of climate change.

One of world's most exposed communities

Nomadic herders are among the world's most exposed communities when it comes to the impact of climate change. Higher temperatures, shifting winds and moisture levels that alter rainfall patterns, sandstorms, torrential rain, all can change the quality or even the location of pasture on which migrating herders depend. The herdsmen were able to draw on stocks of animal feed to help them survive stress points, while timely rainfall on some areas of the migration trail helped tender young grass to grow.

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Niger - one of world's pooorest countries

Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, depends on farming, particularly herding, to provide a livelihood for 80 percent of its population.In addition to its vulnerability to climate change, the country is on the frontline of desertification, the equivalent of around 150,000 football pitches is lost each year.

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'Unpredictable weather'

"The weather has become completely unpredictable," said Djafarou Amadou, an engineer working for a group called the Association to Revitalise Herding in Niger (AREN). "What we fear most are pockets of drought which take people by surprise when they least expect it." In 2018, more than 60,000 people, gathered in Bermo, celebrated when rain began to fall as early as May.

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Droughts a key factor

The worst droughts, in 1974 and 1984, were turning points for Sahel herders. They lost half of their cattle. "We were unprepared for it," a herder recalled. "Everyone fled (south) to Nigeria. The animals were so thin and tired that we had to lift them to get them on their feet. Even the people were dying. There was nothing in markets." Prayers to God to raise this "curse" and bring rain went in vain.

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Chronic food insecurity

After the big droughts, smaller ones followed, and food insecurity gradually became chronic, worsened by a jihadist insurgency and the displacement of the rural population it caused. "Today, we have fewer animals and smaller harvests and more mouths to feed," said the engineer Amadou. Niger is the sixth poorest country in the world but has the planet's highest fertility rate at more than seven children per woman on average.

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The crunch

Dwindling harvests, relentless population pressure, climate uncertainty, pollution of underground aquifers, rivalry between herders and farmers over access to land: all this is a deadly mixture.

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'Phantom of hunger'

In recent times, even in good years such as 2019, the phantom of hunger has never gone away. Harvests and livestock production are in surplus and the price of millet, sorghum and corn has fallen.  Yet despite this, between June and August, 1.2 million Nigeriens were in a position of serious food insecurity, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

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Exodus

In cities across West Africa, one can see these young men hustling for a few bank notes, offering to shine shoes, selling a SIM card for your phone or some medicinal remedy. Many become caught in the poverty spiral, and have no way out.

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NGOs in action

AREN, the British charity Oxfam and other NGOs have set up programmes in rural areas that seek to stem this human haemorrhage. One such scheme is a dairy, set up in the village of Bermo, which employs 300 people, mainly women, to produce yoghurt and cheese that are then sold at the local market. Many have benefited from micro-credit to buy farming tools or sewing machines.

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Storing the good times

The wheel of time turns, in the Fulani year, to Gerewol, a grand festival to mark the end of the rainy season. In Fulani folklore, this is a time to breathe and take into account life's blessings. Food is plentiful and the flanks of the animals are fat.Nomadic clans arrive in Bermo from across the Sahel. Bonds of friendship and love are renewed. Weddings and births are celebrated.

(Photograph:AFP)