YATAKALA, Niger -- On a dusty orange plain in the extreme western corner of Niger, a small group of Manitobans marvels at what the local Djerma-Songhay people consider soil.
It's the middle of May, toward the end of the long dry season in this part of the Sahel, a wide band of semi-arid land that stretches across the centre of Africa. In a couple of weeks, rains are expected to come, allowing subsistence farmers to plant millet, cowpeas and other crops adapted to what may be the most marginal agricultural land on the planet.
The surface of the Sahel is baked by furnace-like heat, enjoys minimal moisture and has earth so brittle, it resembles what most Canadians would call sand. When you cup two hands full of dry Sahelian soil, it slides out of your fingers like the fine silica of Grand Beach.
It's tough to imagine there's much in the way or organic material in this orange silt, let alone enough to nurture the growth of vegetation.
"I'd love to take a vial of this stuff to an agronomist," says Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a humanitarian organization based in Winnipeg, standing in the blazing sun.
His non-profit organization raises money in Canada to spend on food security and sustainable-development projects in Niger and 34 other countries around the world. Much of the cash comes from Canadian farmers, who for decades have sensed a kinship with their subsistence counterparts in the developing world.
On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much in common between farming in Niger and farming on the Canadian Prairies, where the fertile, black soil is moistened by winter snows and summer rains.
In Niger, the average subsistence plot is a mere six acres, or the size of a downtown Winnipeg surface parking lot. As the rainy season arrives, rural families -- who make up 80 per cent of Nigeriens -- swing long hoes into the dusty soil to create shallow indentations for millet or sorghum seeds, which are scattered by hand and then covered up with a scrape of the foot.
Locusts may consume entire harvests. Goats and sheep run free, consuming any and all forage they find. The families who work the land consume whatever comes off it, while any surplus tends to be stored for the long dry season.
In Niger, hunger is a constant presence, even during years when there is enough rain to sustain the crops that grow during the ephemeral growing season.
In Manitoba, the average farm is an astounding 1,135 acres, or about the same size as Assiniboine Park. Only six per cent of the provincial population farms for a living. Large machines are used for tilling, planting, watering, applying fertilizers and pesticides and eventually harvesting the crops -- mostly wheat, canola and barley.
Wheat-stem sawflies and diamondback moths can damage wheat and canola, respectively. Cattle pasture is kept entirely separate and carefully fenced off. Almost the entire crop is sold on the market. The phrase "Canola: It's what's for dinner" has never been uttered in a rural Manitoba household.
Most significantly, hunger on the Canadian Prairies tends to be a brief sensation that comes and goes between the time it takes to pull into a Tim Hortons drive-thru lane and pull away from the service window.
Yet relatively affluent southern Manitoba farmers and their subsistence counterparts in Niger both struggle with the same phenomenon: an extremely variable climate that appears to becoming less predictable than ever.
In every mid-continental region of the planet, far from the moderating influence of oceans, human beings have learned to adapt to a wide range of weather conditions.
On the Canadian Prairies, that means some of the greatest seasonal variations in temperature on the planet -- average January lows of -23 C and average July highs of 26 C in Winnipeg, for example. The Canadian Prairies also experience tremendous year-to-year variations in precipitation, which can lead to a drought one year and a flood the next.
The landlocked central Sahel, which includes large sections of Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad as well as Niger, experiences an equally dramatic form of seasonal variability. Traditionally, an eight-month, precipitation-free dry season, with highs of about 43 C, is followed by a slightly cooler four-month rainy season. Year-to-year variations also lead to cycles of drought and flood in communities located along the Niger River.
Over the decades, farmers living on the Prairies and in the Sahel have adapted to the seasonal variability of their respective climates as well as to the year-to-year variations.
Today, Manitoba's large-scale farmers have crop insurance to cover losses incurred during unproductive seasons, while Niger's subsistence-farming families can get through lean seasons by eating or selling some livestock -- essentially, their living bank accounts -- or dipping into surplus stores of grain.
Both the Prairie and Sahelian survival strategies are predicated on the notion there will be enough good years, on average, to balance out the bad ones. Farmers on both continents also make the assumption that climate will be more or less consistent, even if the weather is always changing and completely unpredictable.
What's becoming clear in recent decades in both the Sahel and on the Prairies is this assumption now likely amounts to a leap of faith. In both regions, the climate appears to be changing, making the already variable weather even more unpredictable.
Over the past 15 years, southern Manitoba experienced no fewer than five major flood events -- spring floods in 1997, 2006, 2009 and 2011 and summer flooding in 2005. The 1997 Red River flood and 2011 Assiniboine River basin flood were among the most severe recorded in post-colonial history, in terms of the magnitude of flooded areas and river flows.
Also unprecedented were the damage sustained to property and the expenses associated in recovering from that damage and mitigating it in the future. The Red River flood of 1997 cost the province $500 million, while the tab for the 2011 Assiniboine flood is $936 million and counting.
During the same period, it's easy to forget Manitoba also experienced a significant although far less catastrophic drought in 2000 and 2001. The net effect of the environmental hardship on the agricultural community has been the intensification of a very long-term trend: the concentration of farmland in the hands of fewer owners and reduction in the number of people operating family farms.
While number of deaths directly attributable to these events in Manitoba has been small -- two each in 1997 and 2011 -- the long-term prospect of continually fighting a cycle of flood and drought represents the single greatest threat to the economic well-being of this province.
That's because the events we are experiencing are in line with the International Panel on Climate Change's predictions for mid-continental North America.
For the past two decades, climatologists have been concerned modest increases in atmospheric and ocean temperature will lead to greater volatility in mid-continental regions such as the Canadian Prairies and the U.S. Great Plains. Contrary to popular belief, the overall warming trend that sets this chain in motion has already arrived.
According to data collected from hundreds of Environment Canada monitoring stations, Canadian summers are not getting appreciably warmer. But when your grandfather claims winters were a lot colder when he was a kid, he's absolutely right.
Across Canada, the average temperature during December, January and February has increased a remarkable 2.8 C over the past 40 years, said University of Winnipeg climatologist Danny Blair.
"The mild weather we had this winter may very well become the norm," said Blair, who's also the university's acting dean of science and principal of the Richardson College for the Environment.
"We're already seeing a tremendous amount of abrupt climate change."
While warmer winters may be welcome to many Winnipeggers, the potential consequences are not. More winter rain as opposed to snow, coupled with earlier snowmelts, would create the potential for more summer drought, even though climate-change models for this part of the world point to more precipitation overall.
"There's the expectation the Prairies will get wetter, especially in the early part of the year," said Blair, adding this will likely be accompanied by more of the volatility that's already being observed to the south, in the U.S.
For Manitoban farmers, a warmer climate increases the likelihood of a double whammy of a year with too much water to allow planting in April and May and not enough for crops to reach maturity in July and August.
Manitoba's resilient agricultural community can survive such a year. The question is what happens to the agricultural sector when difficult year follows difficult year, not just in succession, but on a more or less permanent basis. And how will the entire province afford the social and financial consequences of "the new normal" when it comes to the Prairie climate?
The answer may be found in Niger, where an estimated six million of the nation's 16 million people are at risk of malnutrition and starvation this summer because of the compound effect of a decade of climate disruption across the Sahel.
Historically, Niger has always been prone to drought. Roughly 80 per cent of the country is covered by the Sahara Desert, while the southern fringe lies in the Sahel, where the rains typically fall from late May to mid-August.
What's different as of late is the frequency of seasons when farmers have been unable to grow sufficient crops. A poor rainy season in 2004 led to a nationwide food crisis in 2005 and 2006. A localized flood in 2009 was followed by widespread drought in 2010 and some of the highest temperatures ever recorded in the already hot country.
Then a combination of drought, locusts and weevil infestations in 2011 led to poor or non-existent harvests across the country, setting the stage for this year's food crisis.
The compound effect is a population in a malnourished and weakened state, more prone to disease and less able to work their fields when and if the time does come to get their harvest off the land.
"Families are unable to create the cushion they need to survive from one year to another," says Nicolas Moyer, executive director of the Humanitarian Coalition, an umbrella organization for five Canadian organizations working on the ground in Niger -- Care, Save the Children, Plan Canada, Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec.
Moyer recently returned from Niger, where the Nigerien government and international aid organizations are trying to prevent the food crisis from turning into an actual famine. As of the first week of July, 342,000 Nigeriens had been treated for malnutrition by Nigerien or non-governmental aid workers, he said. The goal is to treat people in their own villages to prevent the mass migrations that exacerbate the food crisis because no one is around to get the crops off the ground.
Once entire villages are on the move, an outright famine is harder to avoid. It's both less expensive and more effective to attempt to prevent a famine -- but also harder to raise money from individuals and donor nations in developed countries, such as Canada.
What the international aid community would rather do in Niger is get farmers to adapt to climate change.
From 1969 to 2009, average temperatures in the central Sahel -- Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan -- increased 1 C, the U.S. Geological Survey reported late in 2011. The effect is believed to be the result of a warming Indian Ocean, which also appears to be drying out large swaths of Africa.
The increasing heat leads to more of what hydrologists call "evapotranspiration," the combined loss of moisture from evaporation off the land plus transpiration from trees, grasses and other plants. This warming trend has led to a loss of vegetative cover in the region and advancement of Sahara Desert sand dunes into the Sahel and towards subtropical West Africa.
The disappearance of the vegetation has been quantified. One in six trees across the entire Sahel region died during a 50-year period, based on aerial photographs dating from 1954 to 1989, field surveys of the same areas from 2000 to 2002 and high-definition satellite images taken in 2002.
The same study, led by climate-change scientist Patrick Gonzalez, also found one in five of the Sahel's tree species was extirpated from the region during the same time frame.
What this means is fewer trees and shrubs to shade millet crops during the rainy season, provide fodder for sheep and goats and organic matter to add nutrients to the brittle, sandy soil. The sheer absence of biomass in the Nigerien countryside is something Manitobans may have difficult comprehending: Somebody covets every leaf and twig and blade of grass -- even the first grasses that emerge in the rainy season may serve as an emergency meal for the hungriest of Nigeriens.
That is just one of the survival strategies that came to light in early May, when the nation was anticipating the first of this year's rains. In village after tiny village -- from Yatakala near the border with Mali to Niakatire near Burkina Faso to Dogon Dawa above the border with Nigeria -- rural Nigeriens described a litany of ways they've tried to adapt to season after season of crop failures.
Some say they borrow food from neighbours, if they can find neighbours with any to lend. Some men work as middlemen in the livestock trade and use the marginal profits to buy food. Some women take in similar marginal profits by buying millet at the market and selling masa, a form of breakfast pancakes cooked on an open griddle.
Those are the least desperate measures. More desperate men migrate to neighbouring Nigeria or Benin in the faint hope of finding work and sending money back home. Some are never heard from again.
Desperate landowners sell parts of their farms. Desperate farmers cut down precious trees and sell the wood, even though they know this is counterproductive in the long term.
Even more desperate families water down their remaining stores of millet into a calorie-poor emergency porridge that may allow dwindling supplies to last for weeks. Even more desperate souls gather bitter leaves from nearby trees and boil them until they're tender -- or talk enthusiastically about gathering up the first grasses that emerge when the rainy season starts.
None openly admits to selling or prostituting their children, but non-governmental agencies insist the practice is widespread.
What all Nigeriens speak openly about is the dramatic change they've witnessed during their lifetimes.
"We used to have more rains and the land was better," says Lawali Abdou, speaking in Hausa through an interpreter in the village of Dogon Dawa. "In the past, the rains were regular. Now the rains can stay for only 20 days."
In 2011, what should have been four months of rain in Niger wound up being only 21/2 months in many regions. Farmers responded by replanting their fields, sometimes up to 15 times, a desperate strategy that further depleted their reserves of millet and sorghum.
Development organizations are instead trying to teach farmers more sustainable adaptation strategies. In the relatively affluent Maradi region, the systematic pruning of weaker trees in favour of stronger stalks over the course of 20 years has led to a net increase in vegetation.
Across Niger, food-for-work programs have led to hillsides covered with "crescent moons," semi-circular depressions that capture summer rains. And farmers are being encouraged to nurture the growth of drought-resistant Australian acacias that produce edible, nutritious seeds.
Some villages also have been taught to grow vegetables in dry-season gardens, using water drawn from wells. Others have been shown how to manage small savings accounts that serve as seed money for modest business ventures, such as mending clothing with a sewing machine.
Both Western and Nigerien aid workers believe these modest efforts can and will increase the standard of living in this country, which ranks third-lowest on the UN's human development index.
With an average annual income of less than $250, Nigeriens are among the world's poorest people. They are also among the least educated, the least healthy and prone to the highest birth rates on the planet.
The average woman in Niger has 7.5 children. For every 1,000 people in this African nation, there will be 50 live births this year, say Nigerien estimates. Though offset somewhat by high child mortality, the Nigerien population is nonetheless growing at a rate of roughly 3.5 per cent per year.
The UN expects Niger's population to swell from 16 million this year to 22 million by 2025. As a result, the central government promotes condom use -- with the blessing of many Muslim leaders -- but aid workers believe only the education of young girls will bring down birth rates.
Generally speaking, rising affluence and education tend to accompany a drop in birth rates. But some rural Nigerien families are afraid of sending girls off to secondary school, fearing a lack of adequate supervision will lead to pregnancy out of wedlock.
More ominously, regional strife threatens Niger's economic aspirations. After the revolution in neighbouring Libya, mercenaries formerly under the employ of the Gadhafi regime returned home or smuggled arms through the Sahara into Mali, currently devastated by civil war.
Refugees from the Mali conflict -- a complex struggle involving Islamist insurgents, Tuareg separatists and the faltering national government -- are camped outside the western town of Ayorou, complicating the food-crisis response.
And the lawlessness in both Libya and Mali have sparked fears of another locust infestation this summer, as insect-control programs along Niger's borders have been credited with keeping pest numbers down in the past.
Adding to this litany of short-term headaches -- the chronic food crisis, a refugee influx and now potential locust swarms -- a cholera epidemic has emerged in the western Tillaberi region, with about 2,000 cases diagnosed so far, said Moyer of the Humanitarian Coalition.
Dealing with the long-term problems -- environmental degradation, reforestation and overhauling the agricultural practices -- seems like an insurmountable goal for one of the world's poorest nations.
What's interesting is Niger is not counting on the developed world to solve its environmental problems, even as it opens its arms to developmental and humanitarian aid. The assumption on the ground is the world has failed to avert climate change, so there's nothing to do but adapt to the new normal, using whatever low-tech means are at hand, such as the tree-pruning efforts and the digging of crescent moons.
This form of pragmatism is instructive in southern Manitoba, where adaptive strategies to environmental disaster tend to come in the form of multimillion-dollar megaprojects such as the construction of the Red River Floodway, Shellmouth Dam, Portage Diversion and just last year, an emergency channel to relieve flooding on Lake Manitoba.
In Nigerien agro-pastoral villages, the collective structure means entire communities take part in the decision-making process when the time comes to make tough choices that involve survival. For example, in the run-up to a potential famine, entire villages sat down and collectively decided who was the most vulnerable and thus deserved to be first in line to receive food aid.
The orderly manner in which the distributions took place -- in village after village, representatives from extended farm families lined up patiently in the 43 C heat, waiting for their names to be called -- is a testament to the cultural civility of ordinary Nigeriens.
In Manitoba, where scarcity is all but unknown, order likely would not rule the day. This is, after all, a culture where people freak out during the Christmas shopping season if there's a shortage of iPhones or children's toys.
Even worse in this individualist society, collective decisions are left up to government, which is expected to somehow respond to major crises with all of our best interests in mind.
This poses the fascinating question of whether we're prepared to deal with the changes that lie ahead. And here's where this story may actually get you down.
As any other reputable climatologist will tell you, the world's atmosphere has not contained more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide at any time during the 800,000-year period that ended only this past century, thanks to the CO2 buildup that began with the Industrial Revolution. The last time there was so much CO2 in the air, it took thousands of years to get there, not just over 200.
The atmospheric CO2 level is now at 392 parts per million and is showing no signs of stopping, given the rapid pace of industrialization in China and India, the world's two most populous nations. We're already past the tipping point, regardless.
Even if CO2 emissions magically ceased tomorrow, our oceans would continue to warm for decades and will thus continue to affect weather patterns in unpredictable and undoubtedly unamusing ways. Of course, CO2 emissions are in fact increasing and weather patterns are expected to continue to change.
Amazingly, the warming of the atmosphere and the resulting loss of Arctic ice and eventual rising ocean levels do not pose any immediate danger to humanity; all those nightmares are due to come to fruition in coming decades.
What keeps ecologists up at night is the ongoing acidification of the oceans, as environmental journalist Alanna Mitchell chronicled in her exhaustively researched 2009 book Sea Sick.
In a nutshell, all that carbon dioxide in the air is leaching into the oceans, where it dissolves into carbonic acid, which eventually will prevent the vast majority of the world's marine organisms from forming the calcium-carbonate shells they need to survive. Corals are among those organisms. And since coral reefs -- already threatened by dynamiting and bleaching -- serve as nurseries to many of the few surviving stocks of food fish that remain in the oceans, a world without coral will mean a world with even less fish.
And that will mean a very hungry bunch of human beings, since we not only eat wild ocean fish, but grind them up and pelletize them and feed them to the farmed salmon that's become a staple of our diet.
In other words, there will soon come a time when the Canadian Prairies, as one of the world's most productive agricultural regions, will take on an even greater role in feeding the planet.
At that point, we will need every last remaining farm we have. So the time to begin considering environmental-survival strategies is now.
If a Nigerien subsistence farmer can coax millet from what appears to be sand by learning to prune trees and capture water in hand-dug puddles, a Manitoba farmer with millions of dollars worth of assets on the books can learn to stop draining wetlands, retain shelterbelts and figure out other ways to keep water on the land.
In the aftermath of the dust bowl of the 1930s, farmers across the Canadian Prairies came up with low-tech solutions to the flood and drought cycles that have characterized this corner of the continent. We have a history of surviving variability.
The question is whether we can survive even greater adversity -- at least with the grace of a Nigerien.
A few kilometres from Yatakala, the neighbouring village of Kolmane sits in the shadow of an advancing sand dune a plantation of trees is temporarily stabilizing. Last year, locusts ate the village's entire millet crop, but the locals survived on their goats and dry-season gardens. Times are tough, but the heat and looming Sahara are just part of the deal, said Hussein Youhou, a farmer with a total of nine mouths to feed.
"We're used to our weather and we know it's hot," he said, speaking in Djerma through an interpreter. He then smiles and fixes a sweaty Canadian with a stare. "We also know we have no other option."
If Niger can survive, so can Manitoba. And yes, that is one heck of an if.
How to help
Canadian Foodgrains Bank has committed $9.7 million to provide more than 10,000 tonnes of food to people suffering from drought in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. You can help people in those countries by donating to the Foodgrains Bank's Sahel Emergency Food Appeal at www.foodgrainsbank.ca, by sending a cheque to Box 767, Winnipeg, Man. R3C 2L4, or by calling 944-1993.