Climate & Agriculture
Rainfall has been declining over the last 50 years and periods of drought regularly hit the country. Droughts were particularly severe in 2005 and 2009, causing massive food shortages and hunger across the country – see Poverty & Healthcare.
The dry climate of the desert and Sahel regions dominates much of Niger. Northern areas typically receive only around 200mm of rain each year and in the east, the Bilma desert region receives as little as 20mm.
Rainfall increases in the southwest, where the rainy season arrives from May to September and can deliver up to 600mm of rain.
However, with little irrigation and a reliance on traditional farming methods, annual rain is often not sufficient to produce enough food.
Predicting nearly half its population will face food shortages in 2012, Niger’s government asked for food assistance from the international community. The government also held a conference in 2011 to bring together scientists and experts who can help the country tackle its food security issues.
Small arable region
To cope with shorter periods of rain, experts are advising farmers to plant fast-growing varieties of millet and sorghum. Farmers are also being supported in changing to agro-forestry methods of growing – this is where crops are planted alongside trees. Trees help to protect the soil and also give extra sources of food, such as fruits and nuts.
With much of the country too dry for crops, planting is limited to certain regions – in the southwest near the River Niger and in the southeast near to Lake Chad. Here soils are fertile, though many crops still rely on the seasonal rains.
Small farmers in the south grow millet and sorghum. When rainfall is good, these farmers provide the region's cereal production. Other crops for domestic consumption include cow peas and groundnuts.
Niger’s farmers grow some onions, rice, beans and vegetables for export. They also grow sugar cane (which is refined into sugar) and tobacco (which is made into cigarettes).
A threatened way of life
During the recent drought periods, farmers have lost much of their livestock. They have also been unable to sell their beasts for a decent price, since animal grain feed becomes too expensive. Many villagers have therefore been forced to give up their traditional herding way of life and move to the towns in order to find work.
Herding animals across wide areas of pasture land has been the main activity of many small-scale farmers across Niger.
Cattle meat and milk are among the top agricultural products, along with goat and sheep meat and milk.
Overgrazing has lead to increasing desertification, where sand takes over pasture land and soils become infertile. This process is now being redressed in some areas through the regeneration of trees - see Reforestation.
Environmental experts have discovered that moving herds around helps to reduce the risk of overgrazing, so traditional nomadic lifestyles are once again being encouraged. Trees are also being planted in some areas to reduce the risk of the desert encroaching further.