The impact of climate change on nomadic people

Environmental sustainabilityCapacity DevelopmentWater and sanitation

by Jeff Woodke

Climate change has begun to affect the nomadic peoples of the Sahel region in Niger. Rainfall in this semi-arid area is becoming increasingly unpredictable, with changes in timing, frequency and the amount of rainfall. Temperatures are rising gradually. There have been several severe droughts since 1973, causing massive loss of livestock. Climate change is having a major impact on the natural grasslands, resulting in the spread of the desert and the loss of soil fertility.

The Tuareg are well adapted to surviving in the Sahel’s dry, marginal land. If pastures fail in one area they move on, taking all their possessions with them. During the past 30 years they have developed ways to cope better with drought conditions. Even so, the effect on the nomads who live in this area is considerable. Many have lost their herds of cows and sheep and seen their traditional lands destroyed. Some groups are taking action to improve poor soils, stop the spread of the desert and respond to the effects of climate change.

Fixation sites

The Tuareg people decided that it was better to make some changes and adjustments now and lose only some of their traditions, than do nothing and lose their whole way of life. At their request, Tearfund partner JEMED has been helping communities to establish ‘fixation sites’ since 1990 to enable them to survive the changes that the spread of the desert and increased population have brought. These fixation sites do not settle people permanently, but build upon a tradition that the Tuareg would spend part of each year camped in a particular place. They also enable communities to develop a social infrastructure and education, training, health and pasture management projects, while still keeping hold of many of their traditional pastoral ways. There are now 22 fixation sites and each has a management committee elected from the local community.

Wells

Wells are very important to the fixation sites. JEMED has repaired or dug over 30 wells so far. Sometimes new wells have to be dug deep to find water (over 135 metres at Zeddagar for example). Once wells have water, a number of families are likely to take up residence at the site.

Literacy and education

So far, five of the sites have primary schools that provide dormitories and canteens so that students can remain there if their families move. All sites will eventually provide an adult education programme, targeting women’s literacy and advocacy for land tenure and nomadic rights. Despite challenges, the educational programmes have made significant achievements. General literacy levels have risen to 20% from almost zero, enabling people to read medicine labels and Christian people to read their own Bibles. Numeracy skills have helped in the successful running of grain banks. Improved literacy and the resulting confidence it gives people, have permitted increased political involvement. JEMED uses a gender-sensitive approach which is much appreciated by women who greatly value their newfound liberty. They comment on ‘being resurrected’ and being ‘placed on the back of the camel!’

Food security

Food security has been improved at 18 sites by establishing grain banks. These reduce the cost of grain and make it more easily available. At six of these, small shops have been established which sell basic household items (tea, sugar, matches).

Rainwater dykes

In 14 sites, JEMED has helped communities to conserve rainwater by building a low bank, bund or dyke of stones across a valley, usually about 120 metres in length. When the rains come, the stones slow the flowing streams, causing water to sink deeper into the soil. Behind the dykes, the Tuareg have been able to grow wild wheat. In Intikikitan, an established dyke has increased moisture levels to the extent that plant species not seen for half a century have returned. 

Fodder is of huge importance to nomadic people whose livestock is often their only source of income. Nine enclosures have been built behind dykes to protect and improve pasture for livestock. Pasture management associations have been created at all sites. Loans to buy animals are available to both men and women at some sites along with a livestock vaccination programme. 

At one fixation site called Abrik, there is a valley that divides the ‘dead’ land to the north from the ‘living’ land to the south. The northern land is desert – partly from climate change but also because of human activity. The valley itself was dying as well. JEMED was able to reverse this process and help the people to adapt to the changing rainfall patterns, for example through building dykes. 

Results 

The success of the fixation sites was put to the test during the recent severe drought from 2003 to 2005. The nomads had to survive not just one year of drought but two. During the first year, grazers came into the area from outside with their livestock, and pastures were quickly used up. JEMED staff noted the warning signs and advised people to sell their livestock, keeping only the best breeding stock. This was unheard of for nomadic people – they have never done this in the past. However, many people did sell their animals in time. The men took the remaining livestock to other areas and managed to keep their animals alive. As a result, people in the fixation sites lost a third less livestock during the drought than others in neighbouring areas. 

JEMED helped with food relief, providing grain and fodder. The first year of drought was followed by terrible sand storms that buried grazing areas, and a very unusual flash flood that drowned many small livestock and camels, which were based in the dry valley areas. 

During the drought period, the improvements made allowed some grass to grow in the enclosures. At most fixation sites JEMED has seen a change in the last three years. Women and children are increasingly staying at the sites while a portion of the men move with the animals during the rainy season. 

Once the crisis was over, JEMED helped people to restock, providing 11,000 sheep and 700 cows to the worst-affected families. Each selected family receives two cows and 24 sheep, six of which are always given to the women to allow them to build up their own flocks. 

Many other communities in the area are now seeking to adopt the fixation site strategy. JEMED hopes that governments and NGOs will see the value of this approach and help it to be replicated. 

Jeff Woodke is Project Director of JEMED (Jeunesse En Mission Entraide et Développement) 

JEMED
BP 10469
Niamey
Niger 

Email: Tamasheq@aol.com