Women building a sustainable future: fighting the desert amid refugees in Niger and the climate crisis |

On the dusty plains near Wallam, a city about 100 kilometers north of Niger’s capital Niamey, green rows of vegetables sprout in neat beds. Adding further contrast to the scorched environment, women in colorful shawls walk between the rows, checking irrigation pipes and pouring water over any thirsty specimens.

© UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

Malian refugee in Wallam, Niger.

“We are very happy to work together”

The 450 or so women who work on the land are drawn from three different communities: some are locals, others have been displaced due to conflict and insecurity elsewhere in Niger, and the rest are refugees from neighboring Mali.

“We did all this together with different communities: refugees, displaced people and the local population of Wallam. We are very happy to work together,” says Rabi Salei, 35, who settled in the area after fleeing armed attacks in her hometown of Menaka, 100km north of the border with Mali.

The produce she grows, including potatoes, onions, cabbages, bell peppers and watermelons, helps feed her seven children and generates income by selling the surplus at the local market. Since its inception, the vegetable garden project has also helped smooth the arrival of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people into the city.

“When we found out that they were going to settle here, we were scared and upset,” recalls Katima Adamu, a 48-year-old woman from Wallam who has her own plot nearby. “We thought they would make our lives impossible, but instead it was the other way around.”

A refugee from Mali grows vegetables in a vegetable garden in Wallam, Niger.

© UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

A refugee from Mali grows vegetables in a vegetable garden in Wallam, Niger.

Adaptation to a changing climate

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

Meanwhile, climate change is driving temperatures up to 1.5 times the global average in the Sahel, and the 4.4 million people displaced across the region are among the most vulnerable to the devastating effects of drought, floods and resource depletion.

In Wallam’s Market Garden, an initiative launched in April 2020. UNHCRUN Refugee Agency – Women have learned how to feed their plants with drip irrigation to minimize evaporation and conserve scarce water resources.

An added benefit of the project is its role in helping Nigerians adapt to a changing climate. By cultivating a large area of ​​previously degraded land near the city and planting trees, they are helping to prevent the desertification that threatens much of the country.

A woman lays new bricks at a brick factory in Wallam in a camp for displaced persons and refugees in Niger.

© UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

A woman lays new bricks at a brick factory in Wallam in a camp for displaced persons and refugees in Niger.

Building blocks of sustainable development

Elsewhere in Wallam, further impetus for social integration and environmental protection comes from a less likely source. The city’s brick factory employs 200 men and women—refugees, internally displaced persons and local residents—in the production of bricks from stabilized soil.

Made by mixing soil with a small amount of sand, cement and water before compacting and drying in the sun, interlocking bricks reduce the need for grout during construction. Most importantly, they also eliminate the need to burn large quantities of scarce wood or other fuels used in firing traditional clay bricks.

“After that, the bricks are used to build houses for people supported by UNHCR – refugees, internally displaced persons, as well as part of a vulnerable host community,” explained Elvis Bengue, UNHCR shelter worker in Niger.

“Ultimately, refugees and their host populations are agents of change and can provide for themselves and ensure the resilience of their communities,” Benge added.

Back in the market garden, working with her new neighbors to cope with the challenge of daily survival as well as era-defining crises beyond their control, Ms. Salee stands surrounded by the fruits of her labor and reflects on a job well done.

“We have become one community – I even got married here!” she said. “A woman blooms like plants!”

This story is part of the UN News multimedia series on women’s initiatives leading a more sustainable and equitable future. International Women’s Day 08 March.

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