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.