The humanitarian crisis in Niger (and beyond) is appalling. Reading a recent article in the Guardian, it is impossible not to be moved and greatly upset by the terrible reality of life there at the moment. By using an alliterative title I do not seek to downplay the seriousness of the situation. I do, however, take issue with the way in which the misery has been reported. Perhaps inevitably, the Guardian headline seeks to blame its invented “climate crisis”: “‘We just pray for rain’: Niger is in the eye of the climate crisis – and children are starving”.
I have no doubt that the rains have failed, and that this is causing drought and food shortages. However, to suggest that this is somehow new, and that it can be laid at the door of climate change induced by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (aka “climate crisis”) is to play fast and loose with the history of Niger’s climate. To blame the climate without considering, in depth, the scale of Niger’s problems, is also more than a little simplistic. As Wikipedia tells us:
Niger is one of the least developed countries in the world. It consistently ranks near the bottom in the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI); it was ranked 187th of 188 countries for 2015 and 189th out of 189 countries in the 2018 and 2019 reports. Many of the non-desert portions of the country are threatened by periodic drought and desertification. The economy is concentrated around subsistence agriculture, with some export agriculture in the more fertile south, and export of raw materials, especially uranium ore. Niger faces serious challenges to development due to its landlocked position, desert terrain, inefficient agriculture, high fertility rates without birth control and resulting overpopulation, the poor educational level and poverty of its people, lack of infrastructure, poor healthcare, and environmental degredation.
That’s quite a list. Population growth (despite repeated droughts and famines) is truly remarkable (as it is throughout much of Africa). According to the Worldometers website, the population of Niger in 1950 was a little over 2.5 million, whereas today, best estimates suggest a population of around 26 million – in other words a ten-fold increase in a little over 70 years.
Returning to the Wikipedia page on Niger, reference is made to numerous droughts and famines. “Devastating famines” occurred in 1913, 1920 and 1931 (when the population was a tiny fraction of today’s 26 million or so people). “Devastating droughts” were a feature of the 1970s.
According to the Guardian, however:
Niger is on the frontline of the climate crisis. Increasingly erratic rainfall and longer dry seasons mean that many parts of the country have not had a good harvest in a decade.
I do not seek to argue with those harsh facts, merely to put them in some sort of historical context. Returning to Wikipedia, its page on Sahel droughts covers a “climate zone sandwiched between the Sudanian Savanna to the south and the Sahara desert to the north, across West and Central Africa” and which broadly embraces the modern states of Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso. Given that Niger sits squarely in this climate zone, the history of the entire zone is directly relevant to claims that Niger’s current problems with drought are somehow new or different or part of a very 21st century “climate crisis”. A series of short quotes might help to offer some historical context:
Because the Sahel’s rainfall is heavily concentrated in a very small period of the year, the region has been prone to dislocation when droughts have occurred ever since agriculture developed around 5,000 years ago.
…Sahel rainfall was relatively low in the 7th and 8th centuries and then increased substantially from about 800 AD. There was a decline in rainfall from about 1300 AD, but an increase again around 200 years later.
According to a study of West African drought based on Ghanaian lake sediments (not eyewitness historical accounts) published in the journal Science in April 2009: The most recent of these [multicentury droughts] occurred between 1400 and 1750 CE…
The first major historically recorded drought in the Sahel occurred around 1640. Based on the reports of European travellers, a major drought after generally wet conditions also took place during the 1680s.
Cycles of several wet decades followed by a drought were to be repeated during the 18th century. Sahelian drought again killed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1740s and 1750s. The 1740s and 1750s was [sic] recorded in chronicles of what is today Northern Nigeria, Niger and Mali as the “Great Famine”, the worst for at least 200 years prior. It caused massive dislocation of the Sahelian states of the time, but also disrupted the Trans Saharan trade routes to North Africa and Europe.
Around 1790 dry conditions similar to those of the late 20th century set in and continued until around 1870. After that, a very wet period set in for around 25 years, followed by a return to drier conditions. While the drying begun [sic] around 1895 and caused its first large famine only in the early 20th century, the 1820s and 1830s saw a 12 to 15-year drought and regional instances of major famine from Senegal to Chad.
The first rain gauges in the Sahel date from 1898 and they reveal that a major drought in the 1910s, accompanied by large-scale famine, was followed by wet conditions during the 1920s and 1930s, reaching a peak with the very wet year of 1936. The 1940s saw several minor droughts — notably in 1949 — but the 1950s were consistently wet, and expansion of agriculture to feed growing populations characterised this decade. Many have thought this contributed to the severity of the subsequent Sahel droughts.
Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria, southern Niger, far northern Cameroon (near Lake Chad) and central Chad all struggled with dwindling rain fall from the 1960s.
And although the greening of the Sahel may prove to be a short-lived phenomenon, we are also told:
Since the 1980s, summer rainfall in the Sahel has been increasing; this has been associated with an increase in vegetation, forming what has been called a ‘greening’ of the Sahel.
Note well the statement that the first rain gauges in the Sahel date from 1898. Even today, I can find limited evidence of weather stations in Niger before 1940. Niamey Aero commences in that year. Agades records commence in 1945, Bilma, Birni-N’Konni, Diori Hamani, Maine-Soroa, N’guigmi and Zinder in 1957, Maradi, Tahoua and Tillaberry in 1960, Gaya in 1973, Magaria in 1980, Goure in 1983, Diffa and Dirkou in 1985 and Dosso in 2010.
As Friederike Otto was quoted as saying in today’s Guardian:
Much of the problem in figuring out exactly to what extent climate change was responsible for the impact of extreme weather events… lay in the lack of reliable data around the globe.
Given the limited data available from Niger (commencing, it seems, only in 1940) and from the Sahel generally, it is difficult to see how the Guardian can state with confidence that:
Temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster here [Niger] than the rest of the world, leading to a cycle of droughts that are eroding the 14% of land that is arable.
The Guardian does recognise that “Jihadist violence has spilled over from neighbouring Mali and Nigeria, uprooting hundreds of thousands of people, while the economic shock of the war in Ukraine 2,800 miles away has sent food prices soaring”, and that these factors play directly in to the terrible levels of malnutrition in Niger currently. But, as Friederike Otto also said in today’s Guardian article:
By focusing too much on climate change, it really takes the responsibility, but also the agency, away to address these local drivers of disasters such as high poverty rates, missing infrastructure, investment, missing healthcare system … all these aspects of exposure and vulnerability that make every drought a catastrophe…
That will not go away even if we stop burning fossil fuels today. I think that that is why the overestimation of climate change – by basically blaming this all on climate change – is not very helpful for actually dealing [with] and for actually improving resilience to these threats.
The Guardian has a habit of finding places, mostly (but not exclusively) in Africa, with a plethora of problems, and then blaming climate change for them. I have already written about some of these in The Cancun Con, The Gambia Gambit and Volte-Face.
The Borgen Project makes it clear that Niger’s three main problems are “the high birth rate, the major and minor droughts that effect agricultural and economic growth, and the outward effects of the conflict involving the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.” The droughts are undeniable, but to suggest, given Niger’s long history of droughts, dating back centuries, that this is due to a new “climate crisis” is debatable at best.
Some classic empirical scepticism there. Well done for that.
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Nicely done. You avoid the trap of many sceptics of shutting down consideration of the problem(s) because they are linked erroneously with climate change and a sceptic can ignore those links.
Totally off-topic: I’ve been to Niger. One of my strongest memories of the country is of me pondering how to kill a chicken that had been bought by the naturist Germans with whom I had hitched a lift when, all of a sudden, a small child emerged from the bushes. Very politely, he took hold of the chicken, pointed its head towards Mecca and slit its throat with a flick-knife. I thanked him, he left (as politely as before) and me and the (clothed) Germans had a very tasty meal.
Perhaps a bit more on-topic: A survey in the 2000s found that people in Niger had done better during droughts etc if they had already come into contact with foreign NGOs. This was because when emergencies struck they already knew how to apply for help from non-government agencies.
The survey was conducted by an NGO (can’t remember which one) and made a good case for more NGO involvement in the Sahel – and also, perhaps inadvertently, for better government there.
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John and Alan,
Thanks for the appreciation. I was triggered to write this because I am really quite annoyed by the constant desire to blame everything on climate change. This does nothing at all to help the poor benighted people in Niger which, remember, was 189th out of 189 countries in the UNHDI 2018 and 2019 reports. That’s as bad as it gets. So many problems, so much to do, but it won’t get done if the world says “it’s climate change, nothing to be done except strive for net zero”.
Which was why I incorporated the comments from Friederike Otto. All credit to her for recognising that there can be other “local drivers of disasters such as high poverty rates, missing infrastructure, investment, missing healthcare system” etc and that “the overestimation of climate change – by basically blaming this all on climate change – is not very helpful for actually dealing [with] and for actually improving resilience to these threats.” Those words for me are a beacon of light in a climate alarmist world, a recognition that blaming climate change for everything bad can have the effect of ignoring real problems and thus failing to do anything about them.
This on the day that I see this report:
“China announced that it will increase coal output by 300 million tons this year in April. Last month, India also said it was looking to grow its domestic coal production by more than 400 million tons by the end of 2023…
…China’s and India’s combined 700 million tons of coal output will result in an additional 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, as burning one ton of coal releases roughly two tons of carbon dioxide, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The same volume of emission reductions that were achieved in the U.S. between 2005 and 2020 was nearly equal to this figure, according to statistics from BP.”
If we ceased diverting £$trillions towards a futile (and, so far, monumentally unsuccessful) attempt to reduce GHG emissions, and spent some or all of that money in dealing with real issues that are the direct cause of very real problems, then maybe – just maybe – the world would be a better place.
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Mark – thanks for the digging the MSM can’t be bothered to do, sad how “climate porn” ignores/obscures the real world problems as you say.
The thing is, climate is dangerous. Climate change (not just man-made cc) may make it ever so slightly more theoretically dangerous, in total, across the earth. Or less. That’s just as likely. But a very slight increase in the theoretical danger is possible, over a matter of decades. Why do I say theoretical danger? Because what matters is the human lives being brought to an untimely end. And, as we know, because of numerous other factors to do with hundreds of millions escaping poverty, those death rates have been going stupendously down for over a hundred years.
We care about the danger that climate extremes bring to people in Niger and elsewhere. And we rejoice in the broader picture. Any humanitarian who doesn’t do the latter, very publicly, is a useless, uncaring humanitarian.
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For Lake Chad, which is firmly in the Sahel, although the inflow comes from further south, there is data on water levels. Can’t find a good paleo construction at this second but here a historical one:
The graph comes from this article: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/LakeChad/page1.php
Note the figure ends in about 2007. What happened next? Luckily since the satellite era we have altimetric data. Now I know I have moaned about this in the past, but wide annual fluctuations in a large lake seem a better target than 3 mm per year of sea-level rise. From Technische Universität München:
From https://dahiti.dgfi.tum.de/en/74/water_level/ – had to clip out the image because couldn’t paste the link.
Of course, the availability of contextual data does not stop people from using Lake Chad as climate propaganda. From the first page of a duck duck quack search:
Lake Chad shows how climate change is hitting real lives in Africa
Lake Chad – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet
The Lake Chad hydrology under current climate change
Lake Chad: Cursed by conflict and climate change
Lake Chad, a living example of the devastation climate change is wreaking on Africa
LACC Project : Lake Chad & Adaptation to Climate Change
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More propaganda from the Guardian:
“‘We have travelled for a month to find grass’: climate crisis piles pressure on Senegal’s herders”
Although it bangs on (without any supporting data), you get a few hints as to some of the issues if you read on:
“Sow thinks the government could do more to help support the herders when they are struggling to feed their livestock and has questioned government policy that banned pastoralists from moving beyond the region during the Covid-19 pandemic, even during the dry season. Efforts to protect the environment such as the Great Green Wall, a project to plant trees in the Sahel, pose a problem for herders who have to travel long distances around areas reserved for the project.”
“Pastoralism in Senegal and the wider Sahel region has changed drastically over recent decades. As well as changing landscapes caused by the climate crisis, herders have been forced to change their routes as more land is used for agriculture.
Migrating herders have longstanding relationships with farmers to whom they sell their products, but competition for land can create tension, with farmers accusing herders of damaging crops. Ndong is occasionally told by farmers that he cannot pass through a village, and is thus forced to take longer routes around farms.”
“Elsewhere, as in neighbouring Mali, such tensions have intensified into larger conflicts, in which pastoralists are discriminated against and even targeted in massacres because of their perceived associations with armed groups that draw from the same ethnic groups.”
“Alex Orenstein, a data scientist focused on pastoralism in west Africa, says much is changing about pastoralism. Older family members often remain in their villages while the duty of guarding the herds falls mostly on young people.
“The kind of pastoralism of long treks through poorly or uninhabited areas doesn’t really happen any more. Land use is a part of that as well. It’s no longer just the herds moving through large spaces of vegetation, it’s now about navigating between settled areas and farms; there’s a complex system of corridors and routes and avoiding going into farms,” says Orenstein….”
Maybe not a climate crisis issue at all, then?
There’s a small article at the bottom left of the FT’s front page today. Online it’s behind a paywall, but this is as much as I can read:
Niger’s population boom stirs debate on poverty
Climate crisis, eh?