A woman waters plants in a CRS dry season market garden in Jougola, Dogondoutchi district, in the Dosso region of Niger. Photo by Tahirou Gouro/CRS

By Helen Blakesley

“It takes a trained eye to see when someone is poorer than poor in Niger. People are living in a harsh environment, it’s a semi-desert, many households can seem badly off at the best of times. But this year, I noticed a change,” said Jean-Marie Adrian, Catholic Relief Services regional director for West Africa (CRS is a Caritas member working in Niger with partners such as Caritas Niger/CADEV).

“A very simple thing struck me. Usually, during the dry season, people weave straw together to make new granaries or they repair the holes in their old ones. But as I drove past villages this time, I saw very few of these new circular constructions. Many had collapsed, with no effort to repair them … because there had been no harvest that needed storing”.

The crisis is threatening the Sahel region of Africa—the band of land below the Sahara desert, extending from Senegal to Chad. In a normal year, the Sahel receives on average as little as 78 to 236 inches of rain. Last year’s rains were poor and the harvests bad or non-existent. Food prices are rising.

Conflicts in certain parts of the region have cut the chances for migrant work and have forced thousands to flee their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring countries that are themselves weakened by the crisis.
In February, Jean-Marie Adrian visited Niger, one of the countries most affected by the food crisis. He went to see the projects that CRS already has in place to better prepare people for the difficult year to come.

“In a good year, a household will have a good-sized heap of sorghum cereal stalks stored in the family compound to use as fuel for cooking or as animal feed. The heaps aren’t as big this year,” Adrian said.

“Niger, like most of the countries in the Sahel, is near the bottom of the rankings when it comes to poverty levels. In any given year, even a ‘regular’ year, around 50 or 60 percent of people live below the poverty line. It only takes a little shock for people surviving on the edge of extreme poverty to become extremely vulnerable.

“That’s why we’ve already been helping people prepare in advance, so that they’ll hopefully have enough food to tide them over the ‘lean season’—the months leading up to the next harvest in October.
“We’re working in over 300 villages. Some of the projects have been supporting communities there for years.”

Some examples of CRS projects:

Two hundred and fifty-five garden wells were dug in the last 4 years and 45 are planned for this year alone. We help people reclaim land and transform it into market gardens by using simple irrigation techniques.

We give people seeds and tools to help boost crop production. We use the Cash-for-Work system—hire local people to build community assets, clear land, dig wells, etc.

We helped build warehouses to store produce and started savings groups so people can pool their money and arrange loans that really improve their lives—paying for health costs or school fees. We’ve invested in community radios to broadcast agricultural and other advice.

We also tackle malnutrition. Community volunteers are trained by CRS to measure children’s nutrition status each month, by weighing them and measuring their mid-arm circumference (an indicator of their nutritional status). Moms are given advice on nutritious foods and how to give their child a fighting chance. If a child is found to be severely malnourished, she or he will be referred to the health centre.

“I wanted to see for myself what the impact of the crisis has been on our long-term development work,” Adrian said. “I met our partners—like Caritas Niger—and worked with the CRS teams on the ground, to see how we can adapt, what more needs to be done. I saw a lot of dynamism, communities working hard with the resources available.

“One particular place I visited stuck out for me. It was a place in the district of Dogondoutchi called Jougola, in the south west region of Dosso. Like the rest of Niger, the village had suffered from the last serious food crisis in 2009 and 2010, and is still feeling the effects. CRS’ Cash-for-Work projects have been a way for people to rebuild their livelihoods.

“We’ve started the projects early this year because of the current crisis. Usually they’d happen a few weeks before planting season so that people can be free in time to prepare their fields before the first rains in June. But because families are suffering more than usually this year, they’re already underway.

“I was surprised to see around 200 people from the village working on the land, tending and watering market gardens, preparing the land or building dykes to prevent rainwater run-off and erosion.

“I saw a lot of young men working in the fields who would have usually migrated for the season to find work in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast or Libya.

“That would be a typical coping mechanism, that people travel long distances to find work in the dry season. This year, violence in some of those countries has greatly reduced the possibilities for travel. But some village leaders also told me that it’s thanks to the CRS projects that the men can stay in the village with their families and find work here.

“CRS has been in the Sahel for a long time. Fifty years in Burkina Faso, fifteen in Mali and ten years in Niger. We’re there year in, year out, the ‘good’ years and the ‘bad’ years. We work long-term with communities there, with the help of our local partners Caritas and their wide-reaching networks, and can adapt our programs when shocks happen, to help them cope.

“A crisis like this one sets people back. Many people who work hard to make a living, provide for their families and get an education for their children are having to sell their animals, their land, their assets. It’s sad to see. They have to start again. But it’s getting more and more difficult for people to catch up with the cycle. That’s why working with these communities on long-term development is so important—providing the essentials and helping them make the best of the situation.

“Our staff is very motivated and extremely hard working. Many come from the communities that we’re working in, so they really have their development at heart. It’s quite amazing to see how much they do and how the resources we’re entrusted with can make a difference. It makes me proud to see my colleagues hard at work and making a difference.”

Helen Blakesley is CRS’ regional information officer for west and central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal. This story was orginally published on the CRS blog