First Person

A well in Niger brings reprieve from a food crisis–for now

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Maka Djibo is the president of a garden co-operative in Niger. Photo by Fatoumata Diabate/Oxfam
Maka Djibo is the president of a garden co-operative in Niger. Photo by Fatoumata Diabate/Oxfam

Hungry for spring, people here seemed to be celebrating in the disturbingly high temperatures that hit Boston last week. But all I could think about was how parched the ground is at a time of year when it should be spongy with the snowmelt that replenishes the ground water we’ll need later this summer.

How would we manage if there was a severe water shortage here?

I keep thinking about the daily struggle countless families in West Africa are now facing as their limited water supplies shrink: a food crisis is looming for millions of people, triggered in part by little rainfall.

Poor harvests in Banibangou village in Niger, near the border with Mali, means that some families have already exhausted their supply of millet. But women there are working to stave off the worst with produce harvested from their vegetable co-operative.

“This is an ancient activity that has been handed down from mother to daughter,” said Maka Djibo, a mother of four children and the president of the co-operative.  “As a little girl, I would help my mother grow chilies with water from the pond.”

Women sell the chilies throughout the region and the money they earn helps them feed their families during the lean season before the grain harvest. But when the pond that supplies water to the gardens dries up—as it does each year—the women have no recourse. Their income disappears with it.

To help solve this problem, Oxfam and its local partner, Karkaraen, have drilled a narrow deep well to supply enough water to irrigate a 13-acre garden. A solar pump supports the system and gardeners are receiving seeds and fertilizer through the project as well, allowing them to diversify their production by adding cabbage, lettuce, squash, potatoes, peppers and onion, to their traditional chili cultivation.

“Thanks to the garden, we have been able to help our families.  We have been eating the vegetables and still have enough to sell earn money to buy cereal grains,” said Djibo. “Without the garden we would not be able to survive. What my husband earns as a healer is not enough. We used to rely on the money my son sent home from his job in Menaka in Mali working on other people’s land. But he had to return home this year because of the war in Mali.”

The support from Oxfam has eased the impact of the food crisis in Banibangou. But even with this help—and the income it generates—gardening here may soon end for the season. Come April, the temperatures climb: it gets too hot and unless there is a way to increase the pumping capacity for the well and develop an irrigation system there will be no way to produce vegetables.

A drip irrigation system is now being tested. But as the hot season begins to weigh heavily, so do questions about what the future holds—questions that none of us can ignore as we confront a changing climate.

Oxfam is aiming to help 1.2 million people across seven countries with programs that include cash transfers and cash-for-work initiatives, veterinary care for the livestock on which many families depend, and access to clean water and sanitation. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can support our efforts. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+