The Sahel, a land of opportunities

Internal displacement, regional instability and climate change have created a refugee crisis in Niger, but an initiative in the town of Ouallam shows how different communities can work together to survive and improve the local environment.

In the dusty plains outside Ouallam, a town about 100 kilometers north of Niger’s capital Niamey, verdant rows of vegetables sprout from the ground in neat plots. Adding further contrast to the arid environment, women dressed in bright shawls walk among the rows, checking irrigation pipes and adding a little water to any thirsty specimens.

“We are very happy to work together”

The approximately 450 women who work this land come from three distinct communities: some are local, others have been displaced by conflict and insecurity elsewhere in Niger, and the rest are refugees from neighboring Mali.

“We did this all together with the different communities: the refugees, the displaced and the local community of Ouallam. We are very happy to work together,” says Rabi Saley, 35, who moved to the area after fleeing armed attacks in his hometown of Menaka, 100 kilometers further north on the other side of the Malian border.

The produce she grows – including potatoes, onions, cabbage, peppers and watermelon – enables her to feed her seven children and provides her with an income by selling the surplus at a local market. Since its inception, the market garden project has also facilitated the arrival of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people in the city.

“When we learned that they were going to settle here, we were scared and we were unhappy,” recalls Katima Adamou, a 48-year-old woman from Ouallam who has her own plot nearby. “We thought they were going to make life miserable for us, but instead it was the opposite.”

Adapt to climate change

Political unrest and frequent attacks by armed groups in Mali and Nigeria have driven 250,000 refugees, mostly from Mali and Nigeria, to seek refuge in Niger, while violence within the country’s borders has forced 264,000 other displaced people to leave their homes.

Meanwhile, climate change is pushing temperatures in the Sahel up to 1.5 times the global average, and the region’s 4.4 million forcibly displaced people are among those most at risk from the devastating effects of drought, floods and dwindling resources.

In the Ouallam market garden – an initiative launched in April 2020 by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency – women learned how to nurture their plants using drip irrigation to minimize evaporation and preserve scarce water resources.

An added benefit of the project is its role in helping Nigeriens adapt to climate change. By cultivating a wide strip of formerly degraded land near the city and planting trees, they are helping to stave off the desertification that threatens large areas of the country.

Building Blocks of Sustainable Development

In another part of Ouallam, new impetus for community integration and environmental protection is coming from a less likely source. The city’s brick factory employs 200 men and women – refugees, internally displaced people and locals – in the manufacture of stabilized earth bricks.

Made by combining soil with small amounts of sand, cement and water before compacting and sun-drying, interlocking bricks reduce the need for cement mortar during construction. Importantly, they also eliminate the need to burn large amounts of rare wood or other fuels used in traditional clay brick firing.

“Afterwards, these bricks are used to build houses for people supported by UNHCR – refugees, internally displaced people, as well as part of the vulnerable host community,” explained Elvis Benge, UNHCR’s shelter manager. in Niger.

“Ultimately, refugees and the people who host them are drivers of change and can provide for themselves and ensure the resilience of their communities,” added Benge.

Back in the market garden, after working with her new neighbors to meet the challenge of daily survival as well as significant crises beyond their control, Ms. Saley stands surrounded by the fruits of her labor and reflects on a job well done.

“We became one community – I even got married here!” she says. “The woman flowers, like the plants!

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