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Combating drought in the Sahel

How Jeunesse En Mission Entraide et Développement (JEMED) work to build drought-resistant communities in Sahel 

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Flooding in Pakistan in 2010 affected 20 million people. Photo: Ashraf Mall/Tearfund

From: Managing disasters – Footsteps 88

How to prepare for disasters and reduce the risk of them occuring

The people of Abrik, a small community in the grasslands of north central Niger, West Africa, waited patiently for the rains to fall in 2008. They were disappointed. In 2009 the people again waited patiently for the rains to fall, and were disappointed again. This time, the drought was more widespread and hit the entire country. The northern Sahel is always dry, getting only 250 to 300 mm of rain per year. Yet the people of Abrik, and of the wider Abalak Department where they live, had seen no significant rainfall since 2007! How could they survive until the rains of 2010? How could these semi-nomadic pastoralists keep their children and their animals alive through what would be two years of drought?

An integrated approach

Jeunesse En Mission Entraide et Développement (JEMED), a small Christian NGO, has been working with the Tuareg and Fulani pastoralists in the Abalak Department since 1990, helping to build drought-resistant communities. Currently they serve communities totalling over 25,000 individuals, both Muslim and Christian. JEMED takes an integrated approach to the problems of development among the pastoralists. It combines elements of climate change adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction, natural resource management and community development into a single programme now referred to as “Resilient Development”, a name developed by Tearfund. In 2009, JEMED won a Sasakawa award from the United Nations Secretariat for International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) for its work in Disaster Risk Reduction.

Frequent droughts

The idea of drought or climate proof solutions is central to JEMED’s strategy. This idea came from the pastoralists themselves, who told JEMED in 1990 that “everything done must take into account the droughts, or it is of no interest to us”. This is because the great droughts are becoming more frequent, probably due to climate change. Between 1973 and 2000 only two major droughts occurred. Since the year 2000, three major droughts have occurred nationally as well as one local drought. Droughts have devastating effects on the people and their environment and have forced the pastoralists to adapt. Practices once unthinkable for a pastoralist such as destocking (selling cattle before a drought) have become accepted and widespread.

Tribesmen in the Sahel take action to protect their land by building low walls.

Tribesmen in the Sahel take action to protect their land by building low walls. Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund

Fixation points

The solution the pastoralists proposed in 1990 has become the model for all of JEMED’s work in the area and has been adopted widely in the Abalak Department. It involves the establishment of a ‘fixation point’ in the group’s dry-season territory. This is an adaptation of a pre-existing practice of having a dry-season watering point. The ‘fixation point’ starts with the development of a water source which becomes the hub in the group’s territory. Usually this is a hand-dug well, up to 130 metres deep. Animals are used to draw the water. The fact that the pastoralists make regular visits there makes the fixation point the ideal spot for the development of other physical and social structures such as healthcare, grain banks and education. The pastoralists can either continue living their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, accessing the fixation point as they need, or build a fixed house there if they wish.

A place of opportunity

Climate change has caused the pastoralists to shift their staple food from milk to grain which has increased their water needs and decreased their mobility. The fixation point provides a permanent source of water. A grain bank at the site allows pastoralists to buy grain at prices lower than in the market. Small cooperative shops run by women also exist at the sites, as well as animal banks, selling animal fodder. This means that the people sell fewer animals to pay for the grain and other essential items. They also save money as they do not need to travel to market, which may be 100 kilometres away. Food security is improved, making the community more resilient in times of drought.

Women and men from the group are trained to provide basic healthcare at the site, further reducing the need for travel. Primary schools are set up, with a school canteen and a few host households who live at the site. In this way, children from nomadic households can stay at the site and get an education. Adult literacy classes are also run for both men and women.


Protection and regeneration of natural resources can take place around the fixation point. These protected areas serve as drought or dry-season reserves for donkeys and milk animals. JEMED then works with the communities to secure legal recognition of their land management rights, an important part of climate change adaptation.

Small revolving loans of cash and animals within the community enable people to diversify their livelihoods. This allows the pastoralists to use the skills they already have with animals to gain profit and use it to fund other income-generating activities. A percentage of the loans are made to women to make sure that more of the population participate in income generation. Modern herding methods have been introduced, such as vaccination, destocking, selective breeding and using supplemental fodder. These ideas seem simple, yet they represented great changes for the pastoralists. It was important that all the activities were integrated and that they were repeated at most sites with successive injections of capital which got smaller over time. Although this project cycle is prolonged, it allows communities to build up resilience and diversify their economies even under drought conditions.

Signs of change

The result is that after the crisis Abrik only lost 47 per cent of its livestock to drought, compared with 70 per cent at most other non-JEMED sites. Abrik requested only a small amount of relief aid in 2010, which was a year of severe food crisis in Niger. The school never closed and women and children had food, water and milk. Their economy had been diversified so that although the loss of animals hurt the pastoralists, it did not destroy them. They were able to survive two years of drought with little outside assistance and rebuild with no assistance.

The people of Abrik are now resilient and no longer need JEMED. They have become an example to others who wish to copy them. The process took a long time, but it was worth it. JEMED is working to replicate this experience in other communities in the area. Niger is a country where success is hard to achieve. Yet, by God’s grace, JEMED will continue to help communities realise the potential God has given them.

Jeff Woodke works with Jeunesse En Mission Entraide et Développement (JEMED) in Niger, West Africa. For more information on this project, please contact [email protected]

Resilient development

Resilience is the ability to survive, recover and adapt to shocks and stresses which might affect your community.These can be sudden disasters (eg earthquakes, extreme weather events) or changes which happen more slowly (eg changes in climate, HIV, price inflation etc). A community that can learn and adjust to these changing conditions is a resilient community. It is important that all development is resilient.

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