Climate Crisis & Nutrition: Examples from Niger

By Shawn Baker

Chief Nutritionist at USAID

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how such a crisis can threaten all systems that families rely on to nourish their children. The pandemic hit suddenly. An even graver threat – the climate crisis – has been growing for years and will shape our world for decades to come. The 2021 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change stresses that this crisis “… will disproportionately affect people who are the most vulnerable and those already facing undernutrition.”

I have spent more than nine years living and working in Niger, so my reflex to better understand the real life consequences of the climate crisis was to reach out to USAID’s Mission and our partners there.

The story of Mrs. Rabi Abora from the Mazamni village in Niger is a stunning example of the devastating impact climate change is having on women’s livelihoods, nutrition, and health. Her story also demonstrates concrete actions to help mitigate these impacts.

Due to increased episodes of drought and flooding, as well as declining soil fertility, Rabi’s fields were producing less, and she had to cut out nutritious foods, such as pearl millet, leafy greens, and okra, from her family’s diet. In addition, her husband had to leave the country in search of work.

“Once my husband left for Nigeria and we were hit with another bad harvest, I remember thinking, ‘how is my family going to eat this year?’,” Rabi told USAID Niger Mission colleagues.

Thanks to USAID’s Wadata program (which translates as “prosperity” in Hausa) managed by the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, Rabi gained hands-on training in natural resource management, nutrition and food preparation with local ingredients, financial literacy, and interpersonal communication. Wadata is part of USAID’s Resilience in the Sahel Enhanced (RISE II) initiative that is addressing root causes of persistent vulnerability in Niger and Burkina Faso.

“I learned new farming techniques such as zaï holes and demi-lunes (local soil and water conservation techniques to capture and retain limited rainfall, and concentrate nutrients from compost or manure) to cultivate nutritious and drought-resistant foods such as pearl millet, sorghum and cowpeas, how to take out a small business loan and how to create nutritious meals using locally available ingredients,” Rabi said. “Soon I was producing enough food and had income to provide for my family. I even noticed that my kids seemed stronger since I was feeding them enriched porridge with moringa, peanuts and awara (the local version of tofu).”

Now, Rabi leads cooking demonstrations and teaches pregnant and lactating women and adolescent girls how to create nutrient-rich recipes using sustainably grown local crops coupled with distributed fortified blended flour. She also facilitates savings and loans groups in her own and neighboring villages.

Rabi’s husband Mamani Garba, who recently returned home from Nigeria, supports his wife. “I learned while abroad and from peers in Mazamni who are members of the local Husband School that talking with my wife about household finances and dedicating a portion of my savings to the family will help us prepare for the unexpected. I am happy my wife participates in Wadata activities because I’m learning a lot about health and nutrition from her too!”

Rabi’s and her family’s story illustrate how the climate crisis is undermining the systems, particularly the local food systems, that families rely on to nourish women and children, creating an unprecedented threat to their survival and the survival of their communities. While the global food system is a major driver of the climate crisis, contributing to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation, those suffering the most from the nutritional impacts of climate change, particularly infants and young children, are also those who have contributed the least to creating the crisis.

In response to these challenges, there are three key areas for nutrition and climate change that need to be prioritized:

(1) Accelerate action to safeguard and improve nutrition of mothers and children, focusing on those who are globally most affected by the climate crisis.

(2) Support food systems actions that reduce environmental impact while protecting and improving access to safe, affordable, nutritious food for children and mothers.

(3) Support climate policies that reduce the inequities created by the climate crisis and strive for climate justice.

As world leaders gather at events like COP26 and the Nutrition for Growth Summit in December, it is important to keep Rabi and the millions of other families like hers front and center – recognizing the human face of the climate crisis. As we focus efforts to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis, we need to mobilize actions to keep women and children from facing a growing nutrition crisis.