This shifting frontier cuts the nation of Niger neatly in half, placing the country and its largely rural population literally on the front lines in the effort to adapt to climate change, combat desertification, and reduce poverty.

The Arabic word sahil means “shore” or “coast.” From this root comes the English word Sahel, the transition zone in North Africa from the sandy and barren Sahara to the more fertile savannas of the south.

This shifting frontier cuts the nation of Niger neatly in half, placing the country and its largely rural population literally on the front lines in the effort to adapt to climate change, combat desertification, and reduce poverty.

One of the poorest nations on Earth and heavily dependent on agriculture, Niger’s population is at the mercy of an increasingly fickle climate; some recent years have brought devastating floods, but more often the problem is far too little rain, not too much. The most serious impact of climate change in Niger is an increase in the frequency, intensity, and duration of droughts, resulting in a decrease in agricultural production, an increase in grazing pressure on pastoral ecosystems, and consequently soil erosion on a vast scale.

To face this multiple onslaught, Niger turned to the GEF-managed Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) for help. This fund, established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and administered by the GEF, helps poor countries prepare and implement plans adapting to climate change, called National Adaptation Programs of Action. Other programs of the GEF help to address the effort to slow or reverse climate change. But the LDCF recognizes that no matter what we do now to mitigate climate change, some of its adverse impacts are already with us and in need of being tackled urgently. The Fund focuses on reducing the vulnerability in poor countries of those sectors and resources vital to development and livelihoods, including water, agriculture and food security, health, disaster risk management and prevention, infrastructure, and fragile ecosystems.

In Niger, the LDCF supported a project implemented by UNDP in collaboration with Niger’s National Council for Environmentally Sustainable Development. The initiative joined forces with national stakeholders including six ministries, Niger’s rural development agency, and municipalities, to enhance adaptation of the agriculture and water resources sectors to address urgent and immediate climate change impacts. UNDP is promoting climate resilient development of the agriculture and water sectors, integrating the climate change risks those sectors face in Niger into relevant policies, plans and programs at the national and local level.

The project in Niger is climate adaptation at its most human level — gritty, often low-tech, but practical, tangible, and above all, vital to the people most directly at risk due to the harmful effects of a changing climate.

Among those most vulnerable are the people who live in the small oasis village of Aderbissinat. Deep into the Sahel, about 700 kilometers northeast of the capitol of Niamey, Aderbissinat lies on a major trans-Saharan route linking Algeria to Nigeria. The location accounts for the ethnic diversity of the village, a home to Tuareg, Hausa, and Arab families, and a busy marketplace that draws nomadic Fulani herders from the surrounding plains.

For centuries, farmers here grew sorghum, millet, maize, and beans, and pastoralists moved their herds with the seasons in search of good grazing. With the worsening droughts, many areas that once supported these activities are no longer suitable. The culprit is reduced water content in the soil as a result of increased temperatures and “evapotranspiration.” This term refers to the loss of water to the atmosphere through evaporation and plant transpiration, and is a good measure of the amount of water needed for plants to grow healthy. Increases in temperature that experts predict will also further reduce the availability of water for both plants and people. The combined effect will be reduced agricultural productivity and fewer sources of water for rural communities. The recharge of surface and ground water resources will be reduced as a consequence of the increase in drought frequency and warmer temperatures, thus further impacting water availability for rural communities.

Agricultural productivity in Niger is also under pressure from rapid human population growth in the past decade, continuing at a rate of greater than three percent. This has lead to an increase in livestock numbers in pastoral areas and an expansion of intensive agriculture into marginal landscapes, both of which have contributed to the negative spiral of soil erosion and loss of agricultural productivity.

An underdeveloped economy in rural areas further exacerbates the problem of declining agricultural productivity. Rural communities have insufficient technical and administrative capacity and infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals and municipal offices, deficits that slow economic growth and prevent people from starting new enterprises. Insufficient government capacity to mobilize financial resources for natural resource management helps perpetuate the cycle. Land tenure systems, meanwhile, lead to overuse and degradation of common-property resources with little accountability of environmental degradation. Finally, a decline in nomadism among pastoral people results in continual livestock pressure and inadequate resting periods for ecosystem recovery.

Against these pressures, new ideas are showing promise. Local farmers, government agencies in Niger, and international researchers have developed varieties of cereals and forage that grow well with limited water. These varieties could help poor rural communities become more resilient to climate change and wide swings in climate from year to year. But barriers remain, including lack of money to buy seeds and the technical capacity to use them well. The seed or seedlings of such varieties are seldom available to local farmers because of ineffective distribution. LDCF funding supports an initiative to set up mechanisms for the sustainable dissemination of drought-adapted crop varieties to vulnerable communities.

With these seeds, farmers are already beginning to transform the landscape of Niger. UNDP and the Ministry of Agricultural Development helped provincial agencies distribute nearly 24,000 kilograms of millet, sorghum and cowpea seeds to farmers in Aderbissinat and seven other communities in southern and western Niger. The initial tests of the drought-resistant crops on 80 hectares produced more than 87,000 kilograms of cereal.

Food shortages still occur at the end of the dry season and will likely get worse with climate change. But the new seeds will improve yields, and this, in turn, will support cereal and fodder banks, another effort to help communities adapt and mitigate the impact of droughts. The principle of cereal and fodder banks is simple: Local farmers deposit grain into the banks during times of surplus, earning “interest” on the deposit, enabling them to withdraw the cereal or fodder during times of need. The banks also buy from farmers and the government at a subsidized rate during times of shortage. The number of functional banks will need to grow for communities to overcome increasingly intense climate pressures.

Properly managed cereal and fodder banks can increase food security. Mismanagement, however, frequently leads to misappropriation of the cereal stocks. Existing cereal banks are unevenly distributed among the different regions in Niger and many require rehabilitation. The project has established cereal bank committees that are democratically elected and comprised of women and men. These committees have the financial, administrative, and general management training needed to manage the cereal bank stocks and source and disseminate seeds of appropriate drought-resilient crop varieties.

No matter how hardy the varieties, the seeds by themselves will not be enough to restore the badly degraded lands in the Sahel. Erosion has taken a severe toll. As with the seeds, however, some possible solutions require relatively little money but a lot of commitment and energy. Near Aderbissanat, for example, farmers and herders are using a variety of techniques to stabilize the soil, such as planting more than 40,000 trees.

In such dry climates farmers need to harvest not just crops, but water itself. Since the overall drying of the climate makes the occasional torrential rains even more destructive by removing the vegetation that holds the soil in place, the rains will actually speed desertification unless something is done to trap the water and keep it from carrying off all the topsoil. One water harvesting technique known in Niger as a ‘Zai’ entails digging half-meter wide holes one to two meters apart and filling these holes with a mixture of compost, manure and topsoil. Rainwater runs off the bare soil surface between the holes and drains into them. In this way, each ‘Zai’ hole becomes a biological hotspot, with a greater soil-water and nutrient content than the surrounding soil. Crops like millet, sorghum and maize are sown in the ‘Zai’ holes and their productivity is greatly increased relative to plants sown outside of these holes.

Banquettes and half-moons perform similar functions. Digging straight, narrow trenches through a level field (a banquette) or curved trenches along the contour or a hillside (a half-moon) forms barriers to wind and surface runoff and collect dust, water, and soil. As with the Zai, the trenches become zones of high productivity because of greater soil water and soil nutrient content than surrounding bare soil surfaces. Sowing seeds of drought-resilient grasses stabilizes the trenches, and they have the potential for reversing desertification and increasing the resilience of pastoralists to climate change.

The LDCF project in Niger has helped construct 1,500 banquettes and 17,500 half moons, leading to the restoration of 305 hectares of degraded lands. The barriers require maintenance and the livestock numbers need to be kept under control to prevent degradation of the fodder resource. Accordingly, the project involves working to develop the technical and administrative capacity at the local level for managing both barriers and livestock.

The people of Aderbissinat can see things changing for the better even now. Jadah Izahi, a member of the village committee that helps manage the project, knows the improvements first hand. “Before there was no grass and fodder here,” he says. “Everything was dry. But now thanks to the banquettes, the grass and trees are growing everywhere. In a few years it will be forest here.” Alhoussemi Ismaila, from the village of Edouk, roughly 200 kilometers due west of Aderbissanat, sees progress too: “Before it was a degraded land. Today with the support of the LDCF project, we built benches and planted trees. Thank God, hope is there.”

Broad-scale adaptation to climate change builds on these kinds of successes. The success of adaptation policies will be measured in terms of increased preparedness and resilience to climate hazards in local communities like Aderbissinat and Edouk, or Tamololo, Badoko and Tondikiwindi. Field-based activities in adaptation provide vital opportunities to test and improve practical approaches that can be applied elsewhere, in Niger, across the Sahel, and any drought-stricken, vulnerable rural community.

The project in Niger is already providing the most vulnerable population with increased food security and climateresilient livelihood alternatives, as well as raising awareness of climate risks, and increasing preparedness and prevention policies at the local level. More broadly, the project contributes to building adaptive capacity to climate change in the agricultural sector across Niger and even the broader Sahel. At the national level, government, NGOs, and businesses are strengthening their capacity to integrate climate change risk reduction strategies into development policies and programs.

The government of Niger has been an enthusiastic participant in these efforts and as a result national ministries are developing better-adapted policies and programs that support adaptive strategies. Institutional mechanisms for integrating, monitoring and evaluating adaptation across sectors and scales will enhance the adaptive capacity of Niger to address climate change risks. Through better adaptation measures and alternative financing mechanisms, and with the help of LDCF funding, the government will be able to put in place cost-effective measures of addressing climate change over the short term and build foundations for longer term success. Such small victories, replicated in thousands of villages like Aderbissinat, can add up to change on a global scale.