Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hope turns to dust in Niger

Poor African nation struggling to cope with climate change

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NIAMEY, Niger -- The clay soil is reddish-orange, the cloudless sky is grey with dust and the temperature is a furnace-like 41 C.

Wagon-pulling donkeys share the streets with shiny Land Rovers; goats pick over piles of plastic garbage, and yellow-headed lizards called margouillats scamper swiftly over stucco walls.

At night, the electricity flickers on and off as the heavy air hangs completely still and the temperature plunges to a less-suffocating 32 C.

Welcome to Niamey, the capital of Niger, one of the world's largest, most impoverished and most obscure nations, the latter at least to westerners.

Straddling the Sahara Desert, the semi-arid Sahel region and a tiny fringe of tropical West Africa, Niger -- pronounced "nee-jehr," as this is a former French colony -- occupies a corner of the planet that up until recently hasn't demanded much attention from anyone outside of international-development circles.

For starters, there's no oil in this landlocked nation and little in the way of other strategic resources, with the exception of uranium deposits north of the city of Agadez. Aside from nuclear fuel, cowpeas and onions are among the main exports.

Even the most adventurous tourists rarely make it here, seeing as few happen to be passing through from neighbouring Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria and Chad. In case you don't have a CIA fact sheet handy, four of those seven neighbours are undergoing some form of civil war or insurgency.

Niger itself is relatively peaceful, even though large tracts of the country remain unsafe to travel. Tuareg bandits patrol the few roads that cross the sparsely populated Sahara region. Most of the 15.3 million Nigeriens -- the vast majority of them moderate Muslims of a diverse ethnic mix -- live along the southern strip of the country. About 750,000 live in Niamey, while most of the rest attempt to eke out an existence as subsistence farmers during the brief rainy season that appears to be getting even briefer.

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, according to the United Nations, which routinely ranks Niger second-last on its annual human-development index.

Adding to the ignominy, as many as three million Nigeriens do not have enough to eat this year. An international food-distribution effort has been mobilized as a response to a disastrous 2011 rainy season, which didn't bring much in the way of actual rain.

Most of Niger's millet and sorghum crops failed last year, forcing farming families to pursue counterproductive practices such as selling some of their goats, sheep, chickens or guinea fowl, which function as living bank accounts, or cutting down and selling trees that provide shade for crops and prevent soil erosion.

Vast sections of Niger's tree cover already have thinned or disappeared, partly due to unsustainable forestry practices but mostly because the average temperature in an already hot region rose 1 C over the past 40 years.

Thanks to its mid-continental location, Niger's climate is naturally prone to variability. But severe precipitation events -- droughts and brief heavy rains that flow uselessly over parched, non-absorbent soil -- have increased in frequency.

Environmental scientists speak in no uncertain terms when they describe Niger as one of the most climate-change-affected nations on Earth. Yet Niger's poverty, high population-growth rate and lack of resources make it among the least able nations to adapt to this change.

To pessimistic academics, Niger and its Sahel neighbours offer the planet a glimpse of a nightmarish future. To optimistic aid agencies, what happens in Niger this year can serve as a lesson about the value of swift and decisive humanitarian response.

Within this context, the Free Press will report from Niger in the coming days and weeks. The goal is to reduce the obscurity of this most obscure of nations -- and a canary in a geopolitical coal mine.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2012 A4

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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