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Red Cross Red Crescent Magazine: Life in the hotspot

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The deadly mix of climate change and conflict has long plagued parts of the Sahel. Now, the emergence of climatic hotspots are testing the limits of resilience.

By: Malcolm Lucard
Editor, RCRC magazine

Kinassar, aged 24, manages a small herd of cattle that he moves from place to place near the town of Abala in western Niger in search of grazing land and water. “I walk the cattle and my wife sells livestock products, such as milk and cheese,” he says.

Like many people eking out a living here, Kinassar’s means of survival is being threatened by numerous factors — conflict, a changing climate, population growth — that limit where and when he can feed his cattle.

“There is less and less space available,” he says. “The people are more and more numerous and there is less and less space. Also, we cannot go through certain areas due to insecurity. It is more and more difficult to find quality pastures. It’s making my livestock ill.”

Like many people in western Niger, Kinassar is a good example of the resilience and adaptation people have shown in the face of incredible challenges. Thousands of people here still make a living moving livestock and raising crops in ways that date back centuries, despite diminishing aquifers, reduced grazing and farming land, extreme temperatures, sustained droughts, sudden floods and a conflict that involves multiple armed actors representing many countries and some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems.

This resilience has many faces. In the region of Tillabéri, also in western Niger, 22-year-old Ramatou is one of many women struggling alone to manage her small market garden; her husband left to find a job after the harvests became too small to support the family. “The last five years have been hard,” she says. “We have land but it’s been three years since the rain allowed us to be profitable here.”

All these factors are also forcing many people to find new ways to make a living or better their standing. In the Malian city of Mopti, 21-year-old Gouro sold his herd of livestock so he could open a small kiosk and sell mobile phones. “A year ago, we decided to go to Mopti to flee the insecurity,” he says, adding that the move allowed him to go to school and get his diploma while feeding his mother and two brothers. “When we left [our village of] Dialloubé, I sold all my cattle and became a mobile phone merchant. It’s lucrative and helped us a lot.”

"The last five years have been hard. We have land but it’s been three years since the rain allowed us to be profitable here."

Pulled into conflict by climate change

For others, dramatic changes in local climate patterns drew them further into the conflict. “In my village of Temera, I was a cart hauler for merchants during the River Niger’s high-water period,” says 16-year-old Mamadou.

“My village was essentially an island during these periods; vehicles could not get there. The merchants’ products could only arrive by fishing boats, or pinasses, as we call them. So we profited from the changes in the weather to get some work. I also got busy unloading the pinasses and taking the goods by mule to the merchants.”

In recent years, high-water periods have become shorter as the rains dwindled. “I had to come up with other livelihoods,” he says. “My enrolment in an armed group didn’t happen immediately. Seeing that I was a cart puller, the armed groups often asked me to look for water.

“With time, I became involved. It became a regular source of income. After a while, they trusted me with a firearm and taught me how to use it. I was 14 years old. From then on, I was given the task of security and I worked at a checkpoint. This helped me make some money.”

Mamadou’s story is relatively common here. Many young men are drawn into armed groups out of desperation exacerbated by climate change. While most international security experts say that climate change is not a main driver of conflict in the Sahel, it is playing an important role in heightening tensions over precious land and water resources and increasing the pressure on young men with fewer and fewer options. These factors are often exploited by armed groups, who see control of resources as critical to their survival.

Women also face particular challenges. Some small towns, such as Abala, are mainly populated by women because as croplands dry up, many men leave home to find work. Ramatou H., aged 18, is one of those left behind.

“My family has some land, which we cultivate,” she says. “But this is not a livelihood because [the harvest] is just one time per year. So [my husband] leaves and then comes back during the sowing season.”

Many in the village feel vulnerable. “We don’t feel secure anymore. We sleep with one eye open,” says Ramatou H.

Sometimes hunger overtakes their fear. “When there’s nothing [on the farm to harvest and eat], I go into the bush and harvest leaves, which can be cooked,” she says, adding that while the bush is dangerous, they go because if they don’t, “then we will have nothing to eat”.

A climate of paradox and extremes

Due to the specific challenges of climate prediction in the region (see ‘Sahel’s hotspots explained’ at left), scientists and meteorological organizations struggle to make better and more accurate predictions for farmers, agencies that manage water and emergency response organizations who must simultaneously respond to drought, flash floods and a host of consequences caused by violence and conflict.

In 2018, for example, heavy rains across a wide swathe of south-eastern Niger caused massive flooding in an area already coping with displacement of thousands of people fleeing violence in northern Nigeria and where health and sanitation systems are non-existent or severely stretched.

One result: a cholera outbreak that infected more than 3,800 people and claimed 78 lives. In response, the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund allocated 352,000 Swiss francs to help the Red Cross Society of Niger and other Movement partners stem the outbreak.

And in northern Mali, heavy rainfall in August 2018, washed away more than 840 homes, wiping out food stocks, livestock herds and farmlands, according to the Mali Red Cross, which did the initial assessment and provided shelter kits, household items and ultimately cash distributions (with support from IFRC emergency funds, ICRC pre-positioned stocks and contributions from seven National Societies).

While no single flood or dry spell is caused exclusively by climate change, the intensity of these weather events is one outcome. And it sets in motion other worrisome patterns. As desertification spreads, for example, surface soils absorb less water, making it more likely that when heavy rains fall, the rainwater spills off into quickly formed, fast-running streams rather than soak into aquifers.

This is one reason that in other parts of Mali, underground water is harder and harder to find. “Climate change is having a real effect in Mali,” says Rasha Abuelhassan, a water and habitat coordinator who until recently worked for the ICRC in Mali. “It’s getting worse and worse every year. Particularly in north Mali, the water table is getting deeper and deeper. “We have a lot of boreholes [deep wells] that are going dry and in more and more of our attempts at making boreholes we find no water.”

In the northern Malian city of Kidal, which was never dry before, the ICRC had to dig new boreholes and then still needed to bring in water trucks until rainy season started, she adds. Meanwhile, chronic insecurity complicates efforts to find solutions. “We have to go deeper to find an aquifer but with the security situation, we cannot find many contractors willing to send their [well-drilling] machines to a conflict area,” says Abuelhassan.

Low-tech, holistic solutions

Faced with these complexities, simply digging new wells is not a solution. More must be done with the limited water supplies available. One answer is relatively low tech: building or refurbishing ‘micro dams’ that create small ponds along creek beds during flash floods. The dams slow the water down, allowing it to sink into the ground and replenish aquifers. The ICRC has built four such micro dams in northern Mali and, as a result, nearby wells did not go dry last year, says Abuelhassan.

It’s also about conserving water and making sure the water available does not get polluted, another critical issue across the Sahel. Even simple steps can make a difference. The ICRC has for many years provided vaccinations and delousing services for cattle herders. Now, when cleaning parasites from animals, they use less water-intensive methods (spray application instead of baths) that also ensure chemicals used in the process do not sink into groundwater. Given that the ICRC vaccinated and treated a total of 4.7 million animals in Mali and Niger in 2018, such steps are not insignificant.

Climate change in the Sahel is about far more than water scarcity: it affects all aspects of life, from health and nutrition to personal safety and the viability of local economies. These hardships, therefore, require a holistic approach, experts say.

IFRC’s ongoing complex emergency appeal for Niger, for example, combines a broad emergency and longer-term response, including initiatives on health, water provision, sanitation, food security, protection of women from gender-based violence, inclusion and community engagement and accountability, among other things. The appeal also calls for investing in the Niger Red Cross’s capacity to manage these efforts over the longer term.

The head of ICRC’s economic security unit, Charlotte Bennborn, agrees that the response must be holistic in order to help communities become more resilient to future shocks. In addition to helping people move to drought-resistant crops and water-saving farming techniques, it’s important to think about other aspects of the food-production chain, such as how grains, seeds or meat are processed, transported and stored so there is no loss due to contamination, mould or rot.

One example of this approach is playing out near Tillabéri. Along with millet, the ICRC provided nine new grain storage facilities and trained people how to manage them. It is also supporting market gardens, building and equipping butcher shops and training veterinary assistants.

Diversification of livelihoods

In one project near Timbuktu, Mali, ICRC’s Abuelhassan oversaw the building of perimeter fences around a peanut garden managed by a local women’s association. The fences protect the peanuts from damage by livestock while the peanuts will be ultimately made into peanut butter for vendors in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

Part of the strategy is to help people maintain traditional livelihoods while also diversifying their options, for example, helping them to start small businesses with micro-loans or grants so that local communities can better withstand shocks if one part of the local economy fails.

When helping restore basic services, it’s important to think about how people will use them. This is one reason the ICRC has switched to using solar cells to power the pumps they install or refurbish, says Abuelhassan.

“Solar panels are more expensive but they are sustainable,” she says. “A vulnerable community may not be able to maintain a generator and buy fuel over time and if there is tension in the area, how will they transport the fuel?”

Living day to day

But the response cannot just be about economics and food. Climate change and conflict pose new challenges in terms of protection for people’s basic safety. In many communities, for example, women go out to gather wood for cooking. If they have to travel farther due to deforestation or desertification, they are increasingly in danger.

Because of conflict and climatic conditions, many villages in the region are inhabited almost entirely by women, the men having left to find work. “Here in this village, for the most part, only the women remain,” says 22-year-old Ramatou, from the village of Kordo Fonda in Tillabéri in western Niger.

“This year we had no rain in our village, unlike the other areas that had abundant water. As a result, the harvest is very small,” she says, adding that the women are working as quickly as possible to produce food for themselves and for the market. “Myself, if I had the opportunity, I would leave. It doesn’t matter where as long as I find work and financial independence. Here, we live day to day.”