"I lived through a number of droughts in Niger but the three longest ones which I remember the most swept the whole country," Gibril ag Mohamed, a 65-year-old Tuareg community leader in northern Niger told Al Jazeera.
|Desertification is eating away at
Niger's usable land
"In the 1970s there was a complete exodus in every direction of the nomadic peoples, and northern people went to Algeria and Libya."
Gibril's family, like many Tuareg, are herders, mainly keeping goats.
The droughts severly depelted their livestock and endagered the Tuareg's traditional way of life.
He blamed the droughts on climate change, but blamed the government for standing idle while his people suffered.
"The first drought was characterised by the authories not helping people in need, and more dangerous than that the government didn't care at all."
The situation, he said, saw many of Tuareg die and militarised their young people, pushing them into rebel movements that fought the government.
Hundreds of people, many of them Tuareg, died in the first major drought, which struck the country between 1969 and 1974.
A catastrophic second drought hit the country in 1983, and in 2005 drought conditions and one of the worst locust infestations the country had ever seen destroyed crops, bringing, according to UN estimates, 3.5 million people close to starvation.
As well as destroying the crops of Niger's farmers and devastating the Tuareg's herds, the droughts caused the Tuareg, traditionally nomadic, to change their migratory patterns and brought them into conflict with farmers as the different groups competed for land.
The UN ranks Niger as the fourth poorest country in the world.
Two thirds of its population live below the poverty line, according to the IMF.
One in four children are said to die before their fifth birthday and adult literacy is under 29 per cent.
Population: 13.3 million
Ethnic groups (per cent, 2001 census):
Haussa (55.4), Djerma Songhai (21), Tuareg (9.3), Peuhl (8.5), Kanouri Manga (4.7), other (1.2)
Major exports: uranium ore, livestock, agricultural produce
Source: CIA factbook
Jan Egeland, the former UN humanitarian affairs chief and now an adviser on conflict resolution, has said "no place on earth" is as deserving of international assistance as Africa's Sahel belt, which extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and separates the Sahara desert from the more fertile lands in the south.
"This is precisely where climate change, environmental degradation ... resource conflict ... trafficking of drugs, arms and humans ... all come together in one lethal cocktail," he was quoted as saying in an interview while visiting the region in June.
The UN says the Sahel is becoming a "belt of conflict", as herders compete with southern farming communities for scarce resources - sparking clashes.
The sands of the Sahara have been steadily moving south as part of a natural process for over 400 years but the rate has increased in recent years due, many believe, to climate change. And now desertification is eating away Niger's usable land.
"We have a double problem," Mohamed Akotey, whose official title makes him Niger's minister of environment and the fight against desertification, told Al Jazeera.
"We have a large percentage of the population that lives off the land but a very small percentage of productive land - 80 per cent of the people are concentrated in a small area."
Only just over 10 per cent of Niger's land is capable of sustaing crops or livestock, with most of the country covered in sandy desert, which - due to desertification - is advancing at more than 6km a year.
The government is attempting to tackle the problem by planting trees and attempting to preserve natural vegetation.
"Each year we are able to rehabilitate 25,000 hectares of desertified land," Akotey said, though he acknowledged there was not enough money to ensure the trees were protected once they were planted.
Official figures suggest the process is working, with over three million hectares of degraded land recovered so far.
But a major cause of desertification is the over use of the land and agricultural reserachers, while welcoming the government's efforts, have said that Niger will need to educate its population as well as control its birth rate if these gains are to be maintained.
Niger has the highest birth rate in the world. On average, a Nigerien women gives birth to seven children in her lifetime.
Even as desertification squeezes the land used by Niger's people, multinational companies are increasingly exploiting Niger's rich deposits of uranium, located in the Tuareg north.
Mining is an important industry for Niger and could help to bring the country out of poverty, but is also polluting and thought to have contributed to environmental degradation.
It is a divisive issue, with groups in the north calling for a greater share of the revenues to be invested in the region and its severly under-developed infrastructure, as well as to build schools and hospitals.
The MNJ, a group comprised mainly of Tuareg but including other nomadic ethnicities, has been battling the government since 2007.
The fighting has made the region unsafe. No Non-governmental organisations are allowed to operate outside of Agadez, the regional capital, and few journalists make it much further.
In Iferoune, 236km from Agadez, most of the civilians have fled, leaving the streets deserted. The army controls the town, while the MNJ controls the outskirts - watching the army base through binoculars from the hillside.
"Many families left Iferouane," Mohammed ag Sidi, whose family fled the fighting five months ago, said.
He had lived in Iferouane all his life, 80 years he thinks, although he is not certain of his age.
"In the beginning we were afraid because of the clashes between the army and the rebels - we were caught between two sides," he said.
"Most of the families left with the minimum amount of food, just enough for two or three days because they had no means of transport."
|Camels are crucial to the Tuareg's
economic well being
Mohammed is blind and Maryam, his daughter, was concerned for his health.
"I am worried about my father because his movements have become limited. In Iferouane he was able to go to the neighbours homes with the help of someone to guide him. But here he can't go anywhere," she told Al Jazeera.
The Niger army has been accused by rights groups of killing civilians in their campaign against the MNJ. The nomads also say the army is systematically exterminating their camels - a source of pride to a nomad family but crucial also to their economic well being.
"To the Tuareg the camel represents wealth, the most important economic wealth," said Ibrahim, a Tuareg camel owner who had also fled the fighting in Iferouane.
"It's also a sign of prestige and very important to Tuareg society. A family that owns camels is different than a family that does not."
Ibrahim told Al Jazeera that the army had shot and killed three of his camels and wounded a fourth.
When Al Jazeera saw her, she was recovering from a bullet wound. Ibrahim, who said the incident had occurred about 40 days earlier, was treating here with traditional medicines.
"I thought by now she would be healed," he said. "But she is still sick."
The fighting has made the hardships of life in northern Niger even harder and neither the MNJ nor the government appear willing to sit down and discuss a peace.
In Niamey, the capital, many know Niger does not have the resources to combat desertification and lift their people out of poverty, as well as fight a war.
"Niger doesn't have the means to support a war even for one month. There are other challenges a head for us," Badie Hima, a human-rights activist, told Al Jazeera.
"It is not in Niger's interest to have a fratricidal war," he said.
"People have to stop this and start thinking about the interests of Niger."