By Eric P. Whitaker, U.S. Ambassador to Niger
The United Nations has declared June 17 World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought to draw our attention to the importance of water and land and to advocate for sustainable management of these precious resources. I couldn’t agree more. Today is an opportunity to remind everyone that the problems we face are solvable through strong community involvement and cooperation at all levels. We must also focus on changing public attitudes to the leading driver of desertification and land degradation: humanity’s relentless production and consumption.
Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy of Niger. It represents 44% of the national gross domestic product and is the main source of income for over 80% of the population. These statistics underpin the U.S. Embassy’s development portfolio that includes a strong focus on effective land and water management, which is a priority for the future of Niger and its citizens. Almoustapha Garba, the Minister of the Environment, Urban Health, and Sustainable Development, has informed the Embassy that addressing desertification is one of the Government of Niger’s goals. Niger’s population is expected to double by 2041, surpassing 50 million people. As populations become larger, wealthier, and more urban, there is far greater demand for land to provide food, animal feed, and fiber for clothing and demand for wood energy to provide fuel mainly for cooking. Meanwhile, the health and productivity of existing arable land here in Niger is declining, worsened by climate change, with planting seasons becoming ever more erratic.
Even though Niger has made significant gains in adding millions of newly tree-covered acres, wood energy and natural resource management policies must keep ahead of the energy demands of a growing population. Moreover, plastic waste and unregulated agricultural inputs contaminate the soil, which in turn threatens food supplies and food safety. The end result is that land including tree cover is rapidly being converted and degraded at unsustainable rates, damaging production, ecosystems, and biodiversity. To have enough productive land to meet the demands of 50 million people by 2041, lifestyles need to change. For example, farmers should shift to more diversified and intensified production, ground water use should be strictly monitored by communities so wells can recharge and damage precious aquifers, efficient on-farm water application using solar power pumps should be promoted and affordable especially to women’s groups, and communities should control their wood resources (forests and bushlands) which can lead to proper management while improving local people’s incomes.
Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) investment, the Government of Niger is developing large and small scale irrigation systems, installing water points along livestock corridors, rehabilitating pasture land, and implementing erosion control measures in four of Niger’s eight regions – Tilliberi, Dosso, Tahoua, and Maradi. These investments equip communities with sustainable access to water and fertile soil for agricultural and livestock production, even during the dry season. Right now, the Millennium Challenge Account of Niger is rehabilitating the largest gravity-fed irrigation system in the country (2,000 hectares) while also providing complementary training on improved agricultural production practices, marketing, and literacy to over 4,000 households who cultivate the irrigated land. They are also providing training to local government officials on land use planning, reforestation, and erosion-control as well as training the leaders of farmer cooperatives on protecting precious natural resources while responding to market demands. Additionally, the investment improves 300 kilometers of roads to physically link agriculturally-productive areas to markets and provides access to capital for over 50 women’s cooperatives, youth farmer’s associations, and emerging small businesses committed to climate-resilient practices.
In addition, the USAID-funded TerresEauVie activity promotes locally-driven, holistic, and lasting solutions to water insecurity, land degradation, and underperforming risk management systems. These challenges undermine health, limit productive land use, and slow reduction of and recovery from shocks and stressors. Through TerresEauVie, the United States is providing local communities with new tools for early warning and response systems, including localized drought forecasts and action plans. The activity is also building capacities for monitoring soil-water-vegetation conservation practices, and water resources management tools for planning population settlement patterns. Most importantly, USAID’s efforts are expanding local communes’ abilities to manage the use of natural resources by formalizing communities’ ability to track and regulate their use of land and water resources, thereby improving the status of their natural resources while also reducing conflicts between farmers and herders.
USAID’s Food for Peace programs apply effective techniques for reducing and reversing environmental degradation, such as developing Zaï holes, half-moons, and trenches; micro-dosing with fertilizers; planting/regenerating trees, shrubs, and specific plants that protect soil, reduce wind and water erosion, and boost soil fertility; promoting composting; fighting invasive terrestrial and aquatic plants; and creating nurseries for promoted trees and plants; and promoting fuel efficient stoves.
All of these activities improve conditions for hundreds of thousands of Nigeriens by reducing conflict, saving lives, and developing the economy. In addition, Nigeriens will enjoy a better future for their families. You can make changes in your individual behavior as well: find ways to support local NGOs promoting the “greening” of Niger, go out and plant a tree – or two!, pick up plastic bags littering your neighborhood, consume less meat, buy fewer new clothes by wearing the ones you already have for longer, and curb your purchases of single use plastics. Together, we can make a difference in ensuring a prosperous and secure future for Niger for generations to come.