Niger food crisis and climate change

Last Thursday the Niger government announced an upward revision of its estimate for the extent of severe food shortages.

Over coming weeks, this country will almost certainly become the face of world hunger, matched only by Somalia and, maybe, North Korea. The rains failed in 2009 and 3.3 million people now need urgent humanitarian assistance. The UN has launched an emergency appeal for $191 million.

It was purely coincidence that OneWorld published a new climate change briefing for Niger on the same day as the government’s announcement. In common with other international development agencies, we have no intention of attributing this specific instance of crop failure to climate change.

But the concentration of research behind our briefing prompts a number of uncomfortable questions.

Is the two degree limit on global warming that underpins current international climate negotiations a poisoned chalice for Sahelian countries such as Niger? Why is the power of modern computers failing to provide credible rainfall projections for this region?

If Niger’s modest climate adaptation programmes submitted back in 2006 had been supported by donors, would the current crisis have unfolded? How can the flood of foreign investment into uranium and oil concessions be aligned with goals of food security?

The modelling blind spot for the Sahel was acknowledged in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007. Niger’s 2nd National Communication on Climate Change published in 2009 takes a close look at the latest model results but is forced to conclude that “performance of climate models….is still unsatisfactory.” They simply cannot handle the extreme natural variability of a semi-arid climate, spooked further by the El Niño phenomenon.

The two degree benchmark in the Copenhagen Accord is a global average temperature rise; regions which will exceed this average include those located inland. Niger is landlocked, more than 600km from the sea at the nearest point.

Two degrees is fairly comfortable in temperate zones where crops generally respond positively to higher temperature. In the tropics the opposite occurs because the growing season is already curtailed by excessive heat.

The effect is difficult to quantify but Niger’s 2nd Communication is satisfied that latest models “properly confirm the conclusions of the 4th report IPCC concerning a decline in the yield of cereal crops.” Agriculture in Niger faces the additional threat of an encroaching Sahara Desert, its advance not unrelated to rising temperatures.

Common sense rectification of the human behaviour which has contributed to desertification and water mismanagement is the dominant theme of Niger’s National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA). The fourteen projects put forward are inexpensive and consistent with the broader goals of poverty reduction. They have received only limited donor support.

The flow of international dollars into Niger is somewhat less inhibited when it comes to the scramble for energy security amongst developed countries. France and China are vying to dig Africa’s Big Hole for the 21st century in the Niger desert.

There’s something reassuring about the country placed at the very bottom of the UN Human Development Index holding the elixir of uranium. More sinister is the evidence that the murky world of mining concessions played a key role in the military coup earlier this year.

If politics in Niger responds to the world price of uranium rather than the price of millet in local markets, then this is what needs to change, more even than the recalcitrance of western donors. A government accountable to its people who understand their rights to food and shelter is the most powerful platform for poverty reduction.

It’s also fair to observe that international governance accountable to a global population which understands the causes and effects of global warming would be a powerful platform for the fight against climate change. Ten million hungry people across the West African Sahel directing their anger at our western lifestyles would make compelling politics.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK