Niger: Where climate change is a daily reality
By Amadou Dan Kouré
Hospitals in dusty small towns. Young children inside, lying on beds next to their mothers displaying familiar signs of severe malnutrition. Their skin is stretched tight over their tiny bones, tubes attached to their nose. Some will survive, others won’t. Niger is one of the poorest countries on earth with one of the highest rates of children mortality. One in every ten children will not reach their fifth birthday. This has, of course, many reasons. Endemic poverty, high population growth, and a lack of education on child nutrition are among these important factors.
However, in my past 13 years of working with CARE I have also seen how extreme weather and reoccurring droughts in this vast, arid strip of land has pushed communities over the edge again and again. Poverty and hunger in this part of the world have a lot to do with climate change. Niger is one of the most affected countries in the world. Communities have to survive with less and less water and rainy seasons have become much shorter and harder to predict. This is a catastrophe for a desert country in which already only 12 percent of soils are suitable for agricultural production, yet more than 80 percent of the population depend on agriculture. Severe droughts lead to the failure of harvests and, as a consequence, to some of the highest malnutrition and food insecurity rates in the world.
Climate change is not abstract for anyone here, it’s become a harsh reality with concrete ramifications for the communities we work with. When the rains don’t fall and changing seasons significantly impact crop and livestock production, life becomes dire. But all of this is just one part of the story.
At the same time, entire communities are fighting back. They adapt and try to find ways of dealing with the impact of a changing climate. It involves taking practical actions to manage risks, protect their communities and become more resilient. For the past years, CARE has worked together with communities to identify the biggest climate risks for their villages. We map different hazards and come up with coping strategies for different scenarios. What can they do if less rain falls? How do they ensure their animals survive even if there is no more grass for them to eat? How can they generate an additional income in case harvests fail? We have been very successful with those “Adaptation Action Plans” and communities really own the process.
CARE has seen great successes in supporting people to build their resilience and better handle future shocks. When I sit down with women and men in remote villages in Niger I forget that this country ranks lowest when it comes to economic development and poverty. What I see are strong women and men who come together as a community. People who are eager to use better technological approaches and improved, drought resistant seeds. I see communities who explain to foreigners what climate change is. I see women who organize themselves as part of village saving and loan groups to ensure they have an alternative source of income to feed themselves and their children in case drought once again strikes and destroys their crops. More than anything I see people who are willing to adapt for the sake of their communities. Mothers and fathers who do not want to leave their village, but who want to do whatever it takes to stay in a place they’ve called home for centuries.
A few weeks ago one women’s group suggested CARE and other organizations should support them to stop cooking with wood, but instead distribute gas cookers. They were wary that charcoal production leads to more CO2 emissions and environmental degradation. It hurts that those least responsible continue to question how they can reduce their own tiny contribution to climate change. After all the richest 10 percent produce half of climate-harming fossi-fuel emissions. But I am also proud to see how they take their lives into their own hands.
We know that adapation to climate change works and we are seeing that communities enabled to use better technological approaches and adaption plans not only survive droughts, but sometimes even prosper. We need to focus more on those innovative approaches, on building climate resilience and the capacity to respond to future shocks. CARE and other organizations are asking the international community to urgently step up funding and support so communities can adapt. Developed countries should make clear announcement on scaling-up public funding for adaptation towards at least USD 35 billion by 2020.
My wish is that decision-makers during the UN Climate Change Conference will understand that prevention is key to ensure no further irreversible damage will be caused. It saves lives and is far less expensive than waiting for communities to be struck by climate induced disaster over and over again.