FAO-EU partnership

Niger: when the rain fails

EU-funded FAO gardens help women through Niger’s dry season

22 March 2007, Keita, Niger - “Water? Water is life,” says Halima Mala, 56, as she gets ready to work her vegetable garden. "It is the most important thing in life -- together with our health, and having enough to eat.”

But in Keita, a village in the heart of dust-ridden Niger, one of the driest countries on earth, having enough water isn’t all that easy. Especially now, during the long dry season stretching from October until May.

Still, Halima’s bucket is full, as are those of some 75 women working in this garden. They are able to draw from one of its three water wells to irrigate their patches of cabbage, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes and squash.

Facing water scarcity

Throughout the country, women can be seen working on small parcels of irrigated land, growing off-season crops. In Tahoua, the region that includes Keita, as well as in the regions of Maradi and Zinder, over 32 000 families benefit from gardens laid out under an FAO programme funded with €1 million donated by the European Union (EU). The programme was developped in support of the Government of Niger’s response to the country’s most recent food crisis in 2005.

“The gardens help vulnerable households during the lean season,” says Mamane Tinao, Departmental Director for Agricultural Development in Keita. “These crops allow them to feed themselves and, if they produce enough, to sell.”

One of the aims of the gardens is to support mothers of malnourished children. In Niger, where water scarcity is chronic, so is malnutrition. “Every two or three years, we have a serious problem,” says Mr Tinao.

In 2005, severe drought compounded by a locust invasion led to one of the worst food crises in Niger’s recent history. According to UN estimates, 3.6 million out of an entire population of 12 million were affected, including 800 000 children under five.

But, as extreme as Niger’s case seems to be, its population is not unique. According to the UN, more than one-third of the world's population today lives in countries affected by water scarcity and the proportion is expected to double by 2025. And, as agriculture is by far the largest consumer of the earth’s freshwater, a major global challenge is to produce more food, using less water.

Mr Tinao bets on irrigation: “If we manage water well enough, our farmers can produce, for sure.”

In addition to small-scale irrigation, the gardens in Niger also use another means to grow more with less: improved seeds. Moustapha Niasse, FAO Emergency Coordinator in Niger, says: “You cannot improve food security and increase agricultural production if you do not improve seeds.” Mr Niasse points out the spectacular potato seeds the women are using, which yield almost ten times more than local seeds.

Doing the job

And so, in a garden in Kirari, not far from Keita, 28-year-old Rabi has high hopes for her own upcoming potato harvest – and for her lettuces and cabbages, too. She expects that her three children will no longer have to go to a nutritional centre, as they did in 2005.

This is the first time Rabi has grown vegetables. When asked what she thinks about women working the land, she laughs. Men, standing around, chuckle and make comments. Finally, Rabi says: “I think it is fine. We can do this job.”

Last year’s good rains helped, producing record harvests.

According to Olivier Lefay, Programme Manager for Food Security and Rural Development at the EU’s representation in Niger, severe malnutrition rates have dropped by one-third since 2005.

The gardens are an example of how the EU works in partnership with FAO to reinforce the livelihoods of vulnerable households, allowing them to engage in long-term rural development. “We think that FAO is a good partner,” says Mr. Lefay. “Its expertise in agriculture is becoming increasingly rare.”

Back in Keita, Hamila has finished her morning duties. She too is hoping for a good harvest. But times have changed, she notes, remembering the days when “rains would fall abundantly.” Hamila does not think those days will come back. “Now, we will have to work hard to conserve the water.”

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