Fighting back the desert, amid Niger’s refugee and climate crises
Internal displacement, regional instability, and climate change have created a refugee crisis in Niger, but an initiative in the town of Ouallam is showing how different communities can work together to survive, and improve the local environment.
In the dusty plains outside Ouallam, a town some 100 kilometres north of Niger’s capital Niamey, verdant rows of vegetables sprout from the soil in neat plots. Adding further contrast to the parched surroundings, women in bright shawls walk among the rows, checking irrigation pipes and adding a splash of water to any thirsty-looking specimens.
‘We are very happy to work together’
The 450 or so women who work this land are drawn from three distinct communities: some are locals, others were displaced by conflict and insecurity elsewhere in Niger, and the rest are refugees from neighbouring 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 35-year-old Rabi Saley, who settled in the area after fleeing armed attacks in her hometown Menaka, 100 kilometres further north across the border in Mali.
The produce she grows – including potatoes, onions, cabbages, bell peppers and watermelons – helps to feed her seven children and provide an income by selling the surplus at a local market. Since its creation, the market garden project has also helped smooth the arrival of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people to the town.
“When we learned that they were going to settle here, we were afraid and unhappy,” recalls Katima Adamou, a 48-year-old woman from Ouallam who has her own plot nearby. “We thought that they were going to make our life impossible, but instead it’s been the opposite.”
Adapting to the changing climate
Political unrest and frequent attacks by armed groups in Mali and Nigeria have pushed 250,000 refugees, most from Mali and Nigeria, to seek safety in Niger, whilst violence within the country’s own borders has forced a further 264,000 internally displaced people from their homes.
Meanwhile, climate change is pushing up temperatures in the Sahel at 1.5 times the global average, and the 4.4 million people forcibly displaced across the region are among the most exposed to the devastating impacts of drought, flooding and dwindling resources.
In Ouallam’s market garden – an initiative launched in April 2020 by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency – the women have learned to nourish 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 the changing climate. By cultivating a large swathe of formerly degraded land near the town and planting trees, they are helping to stave off the desertification that threatens large parts of the country.
Building blocks of sustainable development
In another part of Ouallam, a further boost to community integration and environmental protection comes from a less likely source. The town brickyard employs 200 men and women – refugees, internally displaced and locals – in the manufacture of stabilized soil bricks.
Made by combining soil with small amounts of sand, cement and water before compacting and drying in the sun, the interlocking bricks reduce the need for cement mortar during construction. Crucially, they also eliminate the need to burn large amounts of scarce wood or other fuel used in the firing of traditional clay bricks.
“After, these bricks are used to build houses for the people supported by UNHCR – the refugees, the internally displaced, as well as a part of the vulnerable host community,” explained Elvis Benge, a UNHCR shelter officer in Niger.
“Ultimately, the refugees and the populations who host them are the engines of change and can support themselves and ensure the resilience of their communities,” Benge added.
Back in the market garden, having worked with her new neighbours to meet the challenge of daily survival as well as era-defining crises beyond their control, Ms. Saley stands surrounded by the fruits of her labour and reflects on a job well done.
“We have become one community – I even got married here!” she says. “The woman blossoms, just like the plants!”
Canada lacks capacity to lead Haiti mission
Canada’s top general said he was concerned that his country’s armed forces, already stretched thin by support for Ukraine and NATO, do not have the capacity to lead a possible security mission to Haiti, informs Reuters.
Haiti’s government and top United Nations officials have called for an international force to support Haitian police in their struggle against gangs, which have become the de facto authorities in parts of the country.
Canada over the past year has spent more than C$1 billion ($724 million) in military assistance to Ukraine. Now Canada is preparing to nearly double its presence in Latvia, which shares a border with Russia and Belarus. Ottawa announced new procurement for the mission.
“My concern is just our capacity as we rebuild, as we move to brigade level in Latvia,” Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre told Reuters in his office in Ottawa on Wednesday. “There’s only so much to go around. … It would be challenging.” The armed forces are struggling with recruiting and donations to Ukraine have cut into some military stocks, Eyre said.
Officials in Ottawa say the United States has lobbied hard for Canada to take on the role, and President Joe Biden may carry that message again when he visits later this month.
Haitian gangs have expanded their territory since the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. The resulting violence has left much of the country off-limits to the government and led to routine gun battles with police.
Haiti has a long history of foreign military footprints on its soil, including a 1915 U.S. occupation that lasted 20 years, and more recent U.N. and U.S. troop deployments following political turmoil and natural disasters, some of which led to allegations of abuse.
Trudeau has repeatedly said a solution rests in the hands of Haitians, a position Eyre reiterated.
“The solution’s got to come from the host nation itself,” Eyre said. “They have to own the solution.”
Canada has sent armored vehicles to Haitian police, and it has two small ships patrolling the coast. It has also sanctioned several former politicians and gang leaders.
Canada’s military is “actively planning” expanding to brigade strength in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s defense mission in Latvia, called Operation Reassurance, which it leads, Eyre said.
That will mean participation of about 2,000 Canadian soldiers, alongside those from other countries, Eyre said, up from its current deployment of 700 to 1,000.
WP: Ukraine short of skilled troops and munitions as losses, pessimism grow
The quality of Ukraine’s military force, once considered a substantial advantage over Russia, has been degraded by a year of casualties that have taken many of the most experienced fighters off the battlefield, leading some Ukrainian officials to question Kyiv’s readiness to mount a much-anticipated spring offensive, writes ‘Washington Post’.
U.S. and European officials have estimated that as many as 120,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded since the start of Russia’s special military operation early last year. Ukraine keeps its running casualty numbers secret, even from its staunchest Western supporters.
Statistics aside, an influx of inexperienced draftees, brought in to plug the losses, has changed the profile of the Ukrainian force, which is also suffering from basic shortages of ammunition, including artillery shells and mortar bombs, according to military personnel in the field.
Such grim assessments have spread a palpable, if mostly unspoken, pessimism from the front lines to the corridors of power in Kyiv, the capital.
An inability by Ukraine to execute a much-hyped counteroffensive would fuel new criticism that the United States and its European allies waited too long, until the force had already deteriorated, to deepen training programs and provide armored
One senior Ukrainian government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, called the number of tanks promised by the West a “symbolic” amount. Others privately voiced pessimism that promised supplies would even reach the battlefield in time.
“We don’t have the people or weapons,” the senior official added. “And you know the ratio: When you’re on the offensive, you lose twice or three times as many people. We can’t afford to lose that many people.”
Ukraine has also faced an acute shortage of artillery shells, which Washington and its allies have scrambled to address, with discussions about how to shore up Ukrainian stocks dominating daily meetings on the war at the White House National Security Council. Washington’s efforts have kept Ukraine fighting, but use rates are very high, and scarcity persists.
A German official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said that Berlin estimates Ukrainian casualties, including dead and wounded, are as high as 120,000. “They don’t share the information with us because they don’t trust us,” the official said.
The stakes for Ukraine in the coming months are particularly high, as Western countries aiding Kyiv look to see whether Ukrainian forces can once again seize the initiative and reclaim more territory from Russian control.
Ukraine has lost many of its junior officers who received U.S. training over the past nine years, the Ukrainian official said. Now, the official said, those forces must be replaced – “a lot of them are killed.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remains laser-focused on ensuring that Ukraine is receiving the training it needs for the current fight. The United States is “working around-the-clock” to fulfill Ukraine’s security needs, in addition to investing billions of dollars to produce and procure artillery ammunition.
Britain is also training Ukrainian recruits, including about 10,000 last year, with another 20,000 expected this year.
The European Union has said it will train 30,000 Ukrainians in 2023.
U.S. officials said they expect Ukraine’s offensive to start in late April or early May, and they are acutely aware of the urgency of supplying Kyiv because a drawn-out war could favor Russia.
POLITICO: The U.S.-Ukraine war unity is slowly cracking apart
More than a year into the war, there are growing differences behind the scenes between Washington and Kyiv on war aims, and potential flashpoints loom on how, and when, the conflict will end, writes POLITICO.
Publicly, there has been little separation between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an alliance on full display last month when the American president made his covert, dramatic visit to Kyiv.
But based on conversations with 10 officials, lawmakers and experts, new points of tension are emerging:
– the sabotage of a natural gas pipeline on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean;
– the brutal, draining defense of a strategically unimportant Ukrainian city;
– a plan to fight for a region where Russian forces have been entrenched for nearly a decade.
Senior administration officials maintain that unity between Washington and Kyiv is tight. But the fractures that have appeared are making it harder to credibly claim there’s little daylight between the U.S. and Ukraine as sunbeams streak through the cracks.
Meanwhile, an assessment by U.S. intelligence suggested that a “pro-Ukraine group” was responsible for the destruction of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines last fall, shedding light on a great mystery. The new intelligence, first reported by The New York Times, was short on details but appeared to knock down a theory that Moscow was responsible for sabotaging the pipelines that delivered Russian gas to Europe.
Intelligence analysts do not believe Zelenskyy or his aides were involved in the sabotage, but the Biden administration has signaled to Kyiv that certain acts of violence outside of Ukraine’s borders will not be tolerated.
There has also been, at times, frustration about Washington’s delivery of weapons to Ukraine. The United States has, by far, sent the most weapons and equipment to the front, but Kyiv has always looked ahead for the next set of supplies.
Though Biden has pledged steadfast support, and the coffers remain open for now, the U.S. has been clear with Kyiv that it cannot fund Ukraine indefinitely at this level. Though backing Ukraine has largely been a bipartisan effort, a small but growing number of Republicans have begun to voice skepticism about the use of American treasure to support Kyiv without an end in sight to a distant war.
Among those who have expressed doubt about support for the long haul is House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has said that the U.S. would not offer a “blank check” to Ukraine and rejected Zelenskyy’s invitation to travel to Kyiv and learn about the realities of war.
For now, Biden continued to stick to his refrain that the United States will leave all decisions about war and peace to Zelenskky. But whispers have begun across Washington as to how tenable that will be as the war grinds on — and another presidential election looms, writes POLITICO.
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