On the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert herders and farmers with a bitter history of fighting over dwindling resources are now working together to stop a common enemy: the desert's increasingly rapid advance.
"Since I was a young boy, I have seen changes here. It was green; there were trees and rain. But now there is only the wind," says 50-year-old Ibrahim Akoulama, a nomadic Tuareg herder. He lives with his two wives and 10 children in a domed hut covered with grass mats to protect from the scorching sun and dry winds.
As climate change steps up the pace of desertification in the region, competition for resources has reached deadly levels: underlying the slaughter in Darfur and its spillover into neighboring Chad lies this basic economic fight for the land that can save a family from starvation.
But here in southern Niger, Hausa farmers and Tuareg herders are building water traps to make their shared land more productive, an effort which observers hope will reduce the likelihood of future conflict.
"It is totally pragmatic," says forestry expert Kees Vogt who works with the SOS Sahel SOS Sahel International, a nongovernmental group based in the city of Zinder, once the capital of French colonial-era Niger. "The people have no choice but to live from the land. There is no industry, there is nothing [here] except natural resource management. This is all to improve the ecology of the area so you can have more animals and you can attract more nomads to graze their cattle and to trade. The forest is there to be used not conserved."
How the 'water traps' work
Just before the rainy season began here in July, the farmers and herders worked together to build row upon row of man-made foot-high banks of earth. Each low ridge forms a 190-foot by 30-foot basin that traps the rainwater where it would otherwise evaporate or run off into gullies. The contained water soaks into the soil helping to renourish the depleted land. After only three months, small green shoots of grass and spiky shrubs can be seen emerging from the dry land.
"A few years from now you will see the land completely changed," says Mahadi Adamou, a local Hausa farmer who helped organize the building of the banks supported by a $17,000 grant from the Nigerien government's Special Presidential Fund.
"Trees will be coming up and there will be pastures. But," he adds, "it is just starting and will take time."
Mr. Vogt says the building of 521 water traps by local people is a solution that involves everyone who relies on the land for survival.
SOS Sahel has helped set up local resource management committees that include both Hausa farmers and Tuareg nomads alike. Tensions between the two groups have often flared into small-scale clashes over the decades and Tuaregs say they are excluded by the government.
Having previously experimented with smaller, horseshoe-shaped water traps, one of the local communities saw a need for larger traps and made a successful bid for cash from the new government fund earlier this year.
The key to this small success is time – and patience. These local committees have taken shape over 10 years learning to manage the land to everyone's benefit and to do so without the constant support of Western technicians and money.
This is not the usual method of 'in and out' development with a limited lifespan tied to a specific project, says Vogt, a Dutchman who has lived in Niger for 13 years with his Scottish wife and Hausa-speaking children. "It is difficult for donors to put money into social investment [like this] because it is difficult to see the results immediately," he explains.
Conservation is saving lives
While the replanting of this Sahelian forest with its sparse scattering of thorny acacias, hardy bushes, and clumps of grass is driven by pragmatic and economic reasoning, conservation is a useful byproduct that can quite literally save lives.
Lack of tree cover makes the Sahel vulnerable to the flooding that afflicted swaths of East and West Africa in September forcing 1.5 million people in 17 countries from their homes and leaving up to 300 dead. Without trees' roots to keep water in the ground, the rain runs across the bone dry earth, flooding villages and washing away crops.
Population growth compounds risks
At a United Nations conference held in Madrid in early September to discuss ways of combating desertification, experts warned that the same regions expected to get drier due to climate change are also those with the highest population growth rates. Zafar Adeel, author of a recent UN study on desertification told reporters, "This is a recipe for trouble brewing if we continue on our present path."
Mr. Adeel's warning could be tailor-made for Niger whose population has doubled in the last two decades to reach 13 million, helping to keep the country at the bottom of the UN human development index.
The last time Niger hit the headlines was in 2005, a year of Old Testament catastrophe in the country: it suffered a drought, a locust swarm, and a famine that threatened the lives of millions.
A large-scale international humanitarian response stopped the immediate suffering, and good rains have meant better harvests in the years since. Nevertheless, this arid part of Africa is extremely vulnerable and climate change is a very real threat to already tenuous existences.
"A repeat of [the famine of] two years ago is inevitable," says Vogt. "In different pockets you always have food crises; 2005 was worse than usual and a lot of quick-fix cash came in but that treated the symptoms, not the causes."
He believes that long-term social investment is what's needed and that greater understanding between the peoples might mean less conflict in the future.
In fact, there's already evidence that it's bringing farmers and herders together.
As one Hausa committee member said: "We never used to attend [nomad] weddings; now we do."