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Surviving Climatic Extremes in Niger, Together.

Written for Oxfam and WaterAid

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Even the vegetation in Banibangou district, south-western Niger, looks like it is in a battle for survival. The spiky thorn bushes with their defensive formations seem to stab the hot air in protest at the absence of rain. While the imposing Baobab trees look curiously like they have buried their heads in the sand for protection – their bare branches looking like roots exposed to the parched winds.

Against this harsh backdrop children play, and a pot of rice chugs and spits on a fire, while Medina listens purposefully to her radio for official rainfall figures. The rainy season lasts from July till September, but even then it certainly does not rain here everyday.

“I’m trying to understand if it’s a good or bad rainy season, so I can plan which crops to plant,” says Medina, taking a piece of charcoal and writing numbers straight onto the inside wall of her mud-brick house.

Communities like Medina’s have not survived the whims of the bush without a great deal of ingenuity, adaptability and knowledge of their environment. And the charcoaled numbers are testament to one householder’s determination to take charge of the ever-changing extreme weather.

Medina is a member of her local gardening committee and farms a small plot. Before the next planting season, she discusses rainfall figures with her group. This initiative, involving collective action and group decisions, was started by the community – it has been strengthened with groundwater monitoring and small-scale dry season irrigation as part of an Oxfam project.

The Sahel region of Africa (the geographic zone that stretches 2,500 miles across arid shrub-land, south of the Sahara desert) in which Niger lies, has been subject to low, and highly variable rainfall patterns (on average around 200 – 600mm a year). This spatial and variable rainfall challenges traditional coping mechanisms. [http://www.unep.org/Themes/Freshwater/Documents/pdf/ClimateChangeSahelCombine.pdf]

Water, and more accurately water-stress, defines people’s daily existence – to such an extent that it is sometimes hard to define when a humanitarian emergency begins and ends in the Sahel.

As the climate becomes more variable in the extremes, the dichotomy of water stress and water abundance is becoming more pronounced. When it rains it can fall with such force, and be so intensively localised, that it can destroy crops and cause floods – as in 2010 when the River Niger reached its highest levels for 80 years. [http://allafrica.com/stories/201008091225.html]

At local level there is increased competition for scarce natural resources as demand grows, because of rising population for example, and concurrently supply is reduced. Indeed, on-going conflicts in the agro-pastoralist and pastoralist zones in West Africa are increasingly attributed to water stress – though reality is often more complex. [http://researchspace.csir.co.za/dspace/bitstream/10204/3625/1/Ashton_d1_2007.pdf]

Water resource management is traditionally thought to be the responsibility of governments who manage river basins. This has manifested into the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) model. [http://www.gwp.org/The-Challenge/What-is-IWRM/]

But this model, which is often presented as a panacea, does not always reflect local complexities nor incorporate traditional community water management practices.

Communities can fulfil a fundamental role in management of common resources – as indeed the 2009 Nobel prize winning economist, Elinor Ostrom argues. [http://elinorostrom.indiana.edu/]

In Banibangou collective water resource management by community institutions illustrates an alternative option in the light of weak government on the one hand, and no private investment on the other.

International development organizations too have led a strategy to dig more wells and construct more water-pumps, focusing instinctively on extending water supply coverage. However, digging more wells is not by itself the answer – evidenced by the graveyard of derelict and defunct water infrastructure left when NGOs have long gone. Indeed, according to the Rural Water Supply Network it is estimated that one out of three handpumps are non functional at any one time across sub-Saharan Africa. [http://www.rwsn.ch/documentation/skatdocumentation.2009-07-27.8158674790]

Some aid agencies and governments are realizing they too need to re-focus on monitoring water availability and managing water demand. This may not be as patronizing, or as unrealistic as it may sound given the challenge of living in a semi-desert area. Indeed, community based water resource management builds on what some communities have traditionally done.

Local level water monitoring is all the more important because climate change models for West Africa do not give a local level picture of the change likely. Indeed, these models operate at the continent or global scale – there are no predictions relevant at the scale of individual communities.

In this context, Medina’s gardening group have collectively agreed the operating principles on which they will use available water. They monitor water levels, and have agreed to pay for its use to help respect its limited supply. There are long term rewards for cooperation, and agreed penalties for those who break rules.

A recent report by the Institution of Civil Engineers, [http://www.ice.org.uk/] WaterAid [www.wateraid.org.uk] and Oxfam [www.oxfam.org.uk] argues community based water resource management is one approach communities and development agencies need to strengthen, even incorporating it into national and regional water policy. [http://www.wateraid.org/uk/about_us/newsroom/10164.asp]

Focusing on increasing water coverage with more wells is perhaps the natural response to meet peoples’ needs. But in the absence of Government and NGO sustainability, communities have been taking charge, challenging the notion that people necessarily engage in conflict over water scarcity, and indeed that they are only passive recipients of aid.

In Banibangou, the process of building on this local knowledge is proving positive with the gardening group increasing from 50 to 500 members. Collective community action, with effective continued external support by local authorities is the key to supporting these extant techniques. “It’s good working together,” says Medina, as she stirs her bubbling cooking pot. “We have to take charge of our local resources to support our future generations.”

By Meena Bhandari

DSC00317                     All Photo Credits: Meena Bhandari/2013

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