Niger's Farmers New Menace: El Niño

News and Press Release
Originally published
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By Lane Hartill

Hassan, like all true farmers, loves his cows almost as much as his children.

It's easy to see why. These zebus are a gorgeous-looking bunch: the cows are long-lashed beauties; the glowering bull is the color of dark chocolate with velvety folds swaying beneath his brisket. And all of them, despite their sharp and glistening horns, are as docile as lap dogs.

But Hassan is worried. They are losing weight. The pastures are balding patches, more sand than fodder, with brittle yellow grass full of kram kram, needle-sharp burs that stick to everything. There aren't many nutrients in this feathery grass. Already, the cows' rib cages are starting to stand out in bas-relief and, as the herd walks away, their pelvises are so visible their hide and bones look like a sheet tossed over a coat rack.

'There Will Be Nothing Left'

"In five months," says Hassan, sweeping his hand along the ground, "there will be nothing left."

That's the problem now for Hassan and farmers across Africa: You can't count on the weather anymore. Nobody knows when to plant, or when the rain will come. The rainy season seems to have ended, and it wasn't much to begin with. And with El Niño weather phenomenon in effect this year, which usually means erratic rainfall in some areas, drought in others, African farmers are bearing the brunt of climate change. Some nomadic herders in Niger have already traveled far into Benin and parts of Nigeria looking for greener pastures.

"The movement of people will be even more accentuated," says Lazreg Benaïchata, who works at the African Center of Meteorological Applications for Development (ACMAD) in Niger's capital, Niamey. "There will be movement of people and cattle to places where they aren't used to going. The climate is no longer stable. [Farmers] don't know what to do."

And it's not just livestock. Hassan's millet fields suffered, too. The rain came late this year, forcing many farmers to replant, and the yield was down. That means in a few months, his wife isn't going to have enough millet to make boule, a chalk-white soup usually made with water that is the staple of the diet here. To buy more millet, Hassan will have to sell off some of his sheep before they start losing too much weight.

But by early next year, it's likely everyone will also be selling animals, driving down prices. Hassan knows this, but has no choice. How will he manage? "Only God can help," he says.

'We Don't Know What's Going to Happen'

The next few months for Hassan and thousands of others in Niger could be tough. The Famine Early Warning System Network, an organization that looks at the amount of food harvested in countries, predicts that food will start dwindling. Pasture conditions, as Hassan can attest, have been poor for the second year in a row. When there is less grass, cows often have problems having calves, which leads to less milk. Hassan says that he is only able to milk a few quarts from his cows each day, which is not nearly enough for six children.

When the grass disappears completely, Hassan will start feeding the herd the leaves and stalks of dried millet. There are few nutrients in fodder like this; it's just something to fill the cows' stomachs.

Hassan knows his 30-some cows, calves and bulls will grow skeletal; he just hopes they make it to June when the rainy season starts. But with the topsy-turvy weather, Hassan and other farmers are not sure when-or if-the rains will come.

"We don't know what's going to happen in next 10 years," says Dr. Leonard Njau, the head of the climate and environment department at ACMAD. "Climate change maps are going to change in terms of extremes."

Njau says that after November and December, when the impact of El Niño is at its peak, he's concerned about the harmattan. This is the cool dry wind that blows off the Sahara desert, bringing dust storms and speeding the spread of meningitis, a virus that is spread through the air. He doesn't know how it will react with El Niño.

This unpredictable weather is potentially devastating for a country in which cattle are the backbone of the economy. In 2007, a cattle census was taken, revealing an additional 30 million head of livestock: 30 percent more than previously assumed. In a country where one-third of livestock farmers are transhumant-nomadic pastoralists who walk with their cattle hundreds of miles in search of pasture-the only thing more important than pasture is water.

For some it's a nightmare. But Hassan is lucky. The 22-year-old well in his village of Adam Kolé, located north of the city of Zinder, has never run dry. Over the years, it has slaked the thirst of hundreds of thousands of camels, sheep and cattle on their walk south in search of pastures.

That doesn't mean it wasn't without problems.

Better Water, Better Health

Originally, the well was an unprotected hole in the ground. Animal waste and sand quickly filled the well. Villagers had to be lowered down into the well to haul the muck out with buckets. Hassan says that in order to get clean water, you had to be the first one at the well. Otherwise, you were left with stinking brown water, spiked with cow manure.

All that changed when Catholic Relief Services and our partner Development for a Better World, a local Nigerien nongovernmental organization, refurbished the well.

A simple elevated cement wall around the opening of the well, and a surrounding outer wall, have greatly improved the water quality-and the health of villagers. Elders say there are less sick children and the taste of the water has greatly improved.

A management committee was also put in place. Twenty-cent fines are levied for things like wearing shoes around the opening of the well or urinating in the vicinity of the well. Bathing in the cattle's cement watering troughs-perfect bathtubs for a sweaty teenager-is also punishable with a fine.

Center of Village Life

Now, the refurbished well is the local hangout. On a recent morning, when the school gets out for recess, kids run down to check out the activity. Women carry babies on their backs and water in clay jars on their heads. On one side of the well, a boy named Ibrahim leads a camel as it draws water from the well. After it's pulled the water up, the boy drops the lead, grabs the camel's tail, and they both trot back to the well; the camel groaning, the boy laughing.

When the villagers have finished collecting water, Hassan's cattle are next. They lope toward the watering trough, parched from eating dry grass seasoned with hot sand for the last two days. Nostrils flaring and throats undulating with swallowed water, the cows drain the trough in minutes. The cows' horns clack together like wooden wind chimes as they jostle for position.

When they've gotten their fill, the cows know to step aside and let others drink.

When it's time to take the cattle to the pasture, Hassan, like a musher in the Iditarod, leads the cows with a series of clicks and hisses. A clucking noise means to stop. A clicking noise means to go. The cows, like a well-trained team of huskies, follow his commands.

But soon after Hassan and the cattle arrive, the wind kicks up, and his turban starts flapping. The sky darkens. And rain starts pelting down. Hassan's field is soon full of puddles and he's shaking his head.

He doesn't know what to say.

It looks like the rainy season isn't finished yet.

Lane Hartill is the western and central Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.