DAKAR, March 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Seydou Walaga,
a grey-haired farmer in western Niger, lifts the hatch of his
grain silo, a round hut made of sticks and straw, to reveal
piles of sorghum and millet.
The crops were harvested nearly seven months ago, the
longest a season's yield has ever lasted him in the
drought-prone region of West Africa's Sahel, a semi-arid belt
below the Sahara stretching from Senegal to Chad.
"My family is still eating the grain I harvested last year,"
Walaga told the United States Agency for International
Development (USAID), which has taught him and other farmers
methods for increasing crop yields.
"In the years before, my crop only fed us for two months,"
USAID quoted Walaga as saying in a case study.
The main difference, the farmer said, is a technique he
started using called zai, pits dug in hardened farmland and
filled with compost and manure. Seeds are planted inside at the
start of the rainy season, and the pits boost crop productivity
by concentrating scarce water and nutrients around the plants.
Zai is one of many techniques experts say have made
communities across the Sahel better prepared to withstand
drought since the last major dry spell in 2012 left 18 million
people in need of assistance.
Following that emergency, many relief and development
agencies in the region shifted their focus toward helping people
prepare for and survive drought, rather than only providing aid
after each recurring crisis.
Five years on, experts say the results are promising.
Thousands of farmers have learned to use methods such as zai and
stone bunds - low walls that slow run-off - to boost crop yields
and restore large swathes of degraded land.
Scientists have also created new ways to collect and
distribute climate data, setting up effective early warning
systems for drought.
At the same time, the Global Alliance for Resilience (AGIR)
- set up by the European Union and regional bodies - has pushed
African governments to engage more in agricultural issues.
But the approach has been scattered and food insecurity
remains high in the region. Many experts say the next step is to
scale up successful programmes to a national or regional level,
requiring more long-term funding and government support.
Scientists say programmes that track weather patterns are
critical for farmers in Africa where traditional methods of
predicting the weather have become less reliable due to climate
change - and are a top candidate for increased investment.
In Senegal, a project to provide detailed rainfall forecasts
to farmers via radio programmes made a significant difference
during a 2014 drought, according to Robert Zougmore of the
Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme,
which worked on the initiative with Senegal's meteorological
The service notified farmers before planting time that the
season would be dry, and advised them to substitute their
regular crops with varieties that required less water.
"It helped to avert a major disaster," Zougmore, CCAFS' West
Africa programme leader, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The programme has since expanded to reach up to 7 million
rural people in Senegal, with similar projects underway in
Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
While climate information services are crucial in the Sahel,
the interventions that work best come from the communities
themselves and are low-tech, Zougmore said.
Often the techniques have been around for decades but
farmers need support to implement them or training to make them
more effective and sustainable, experts say.
For example, in Chad and Niger, the World Food Programme
(WFP) has paid villagers with cash or food to build dams and
dykes, dig zai, and implement other projects that maximise water
Nearly 1.5 million acres (607,028 hectares) of dry farmland
have been restored in the past three years, much of it for use
by the very poor, said WFP Niger country director Benoit Thiry.
In parts of Niger, WFP is even beginning to phase out food
assistance because people have become self-sufficient, he said.
"We have been able to measure some improvement in the
resilience of the population," Thiry told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation. "But there are lots of challenges."
Directors of international aid and development programmes
say they would like to work with communities over a longer
period but struggle to obtain funding to match.
To create lasting change requires at least 15 to 20 years of
support, said Sibiri Jean Zoundi, deputy director of an
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
platform that oversees West African resilience network AGIR.
But five years is a more typical time-frame for programmes
such as USAID's Resilience in the Sahel-Enhanced (RISE) project,
launched after the region's devastating drought in 2012.
Through RISE, USAID has spread conservation farming
techniques and helped communities set up irrigation systems in
especially exposed regions of Burkina Faso and Niger.
Some of the agencies with the longest history of working to
combat drought in the Sahel are not international aid agencies
but regional organisations such as the Permanent Interstate
Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), founded in
CILSS scientist Seydou Traore said drought resilience has
been gradually improving since before the 2012 crisis.
Nevertheless there has been greater national and
international attention on resilience to drought since 2012,
according to Zoundi of the AGIR network.
"It is too early to say whether most countries could overcome
or prevent a drought, but they know what needs to be done,"
"We have some very good practices in the region. We just
need support to scale them up."
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights,
trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.