In-depth: Running Dry: the humanitarian impact of the global water crisis

NIGER: Water, water everywhere but few have access

The Saheal Twareg and Pleu herdsmen extract water from a rare well for their cattle. Only 60 percent of rural population in Niger has access to water. The UN Development Programme ranked Niger as the World’s poorest country
NIAMEY, 8 September 2006 (IRIN) - The desert is fabled for creating mirages, the false appearance of a body of water amidst the sandy plains, but it is no illusion that beneath the deserts of Niger lies enough water to sate the thirst of the entire population and their land.

Niger has an estimated 2.5 billion cubic metres of underground renewable water, but only 20 percent is currently exploited, according to the United Nations children’s agency, Unicef. Each cubic metre of water contains about 1,000 litres. In addition to its underground water sources, Niger also has the Niger River, the Komadougou River and Lake Chad.

Despite the abundant freshwater resources, only 60 percent of Niger’s rural population has access to potable water. The figure is only slightly higher – 70 percent – for Niger’s urban population, according to the Ministry of Water, the Environment and the Fight Against Desertification. Access to water has been an ongoing struggle for this country, ranked as the globe’s poorest by the UN Development Programme. It has the highest birth rate in the world, with women bearing on average eight children. This rising population adds extra stress to an already short water supply.

There are several other factors that have put Niger’s water supply in a precarious state, including poverty, environmental issues and poor infrastructure. This has resulted in devastating consequences for the population, including a severe hunger crisis in 2005 and life-threatening health problems, such as typhoid and diarrhoea.

Shrinking waters

Nearly 80 percent of Nigeriens rely on subsistence farming as their main food source. In the past, seasonal monsoons provided sufficient water for farmers to plant and harvest enough crops to last them through the year. However, rainfall in the region has decreased between 20 percent and 50 percent in the last 30 years, according to France’s National Centre for Scientific Research. Several years of drought helped trigger the 2005 food crisis.

Desertification has compounded the problem of poor precipitation. With lakes and ponds lacking replenishment and arable land being overcultivated, more and more of the country’s fertile lakeside plains are transforming into barren deserts, with soil stripped of nutrients.

The area around Lake Chad has particularly suffered from this phenomenon. Divided between Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria, this lake was once the fourth largest in Africa. It has shrunk dramatically since the 1960s. A study published in 2001 in the Journal of Geophysical Research concluded that in 40 years, Lake Chad had constricted from 25,000sq km to only 1, 500sq km – a surface-area reduction of 94 percent. The study attributed the drastic shift to changes in climate, as well as poor irrigation planning, which has diverted too much of the lake’s water supply. The shrinkage has stranded some communities far from the shores of the lake. N’guimi, for instance, located 1,500km east of Niamey and once a lakeside town, is now more than 100km from the lake.


Photo: IRIN/ G. Cranston
Two young Nigerien slaves collect water from a traditional well in the far west of Niger, a great distance from their home. Water is scarce in the desert region of Tillaberi and these traditional wells only touch the surface level of the water bed
Archaic agricultural practices

Conversely, experts said farmers had yet to realise the full potential of the Niger River for irrigation.

The areas surrounding the river, which include the regions of Tillaberi, Niamey and Dosso, are densely populated. Farmers have cultivated the fertile land for subsistence use, growing rice, millet, sorghum and cassava. Because they use archaic agricultural methods, however, harvests are poor.

Only 54,000 hectares of land in the Niger River Basin are irrigated, although the potential is 222,000 hectares, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Developing the irrigation potential of the river would widely benefit local farmers and allow for the cultivation of robust commercial crops, including cotton, corn and groundnuts, the agency said. In 2003, FAO showed local farmers how to improve their irrigation and cultivation techniques, and they produced cash-crop onions that were sold as far as 800km away in Cote d’Ivoire.

Sharing water

The competition for water has triggered conflict in many communities across Africa over the years.

Niger shares Lake Chad and the Niger River with several countries, including Mali, Guinea, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon and Chad. All of these nations have a vested interest in the vital resources provided by these waterways.

Recognising the need for cooperation, two bodies emerged to manage the growing problems faced by the people who rely on shared water sources for survival. Both the Niger Basin Authority (NBA) and the Lake Chad Basin Commission work towards promoting the healthy development of Lake Chad and the Niger River so that all countries can benefit.

In conjunction with international bodies, many projects have been implemented to try to alleviate some of the stresses that have been placed on these two crucial resources. The Niger Basin Initiative was launched in July, bringing together the World Wildlife Fund, the NBA, Wetlands International and the Nigerien Conservation Foundation for a two-year project to ensure that environmental concerns are considered when developing the basin.

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