Several hundred head of camel, sheep and cattle shoved and bustled in the blistering afternoon heat to get closer to the well. Many of them were crying and braying from thirst. Nearby, also waiting their turn, half a dozen Touareg nomads sat on donkeys carrying empty yellow water containers. Some had traveled a day or more just to get to this well. But the laws that govern water access in this vast and inhospitable stretch of the Niger Sahel dictate that everyone, man and beast alike, wait his turn. "This life has to end," said Mohammed Mousa, a craggy-faced, 60-year-old clan chief who has been feeding his herd from this well for half a century. He knows the desert is advancing, and that the rains are no longer reliable. "Our life is blocked now because of water. We have to find a way to end the thirst."
It's difficult to imagine a more fundamental human need than water. Its absence in landlocked Niger, which development studies identify as the world's poorest country, is relentless. It also partly explains why, in Yale and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index, Niger came in last: the world's least green country. Poor scores across the board, from the burden of disease (a measure of illness from environmental causes) to water quality and education rates, confirm Niger as an example of the disaster that can result when environmental weakness, poverty and poor governance collide (Niger scores a pitiable 6 on the 100-point EPI scale). It was also a reminder of how, in those parts of the world that lie on the vulnerable fringes of the development spectrum, environmental degradation and societal collapse often go hand in hand. "If there is anything called extreme vulnerability, it's what I saw in Niger," says Jan Egeland, the United Nations' special adviser on conflict, who is evaluating the impact of environmental damage and climate change on the Sahel region on the Sahara's border.
Niger has never been all that green. Most of the countryside is an immense sweep of infertile windswept scrubland. Prolonged periods of drought and flooding have been problems here for as long as anyone cares to remember; almost 90 percent of Nigerois live in rural areas and depend on either agriculture or grazing for survival. Since the 1960s, however, researchers have recorded a 25 percent decrease in rainfall across the Sahel, where desert swallows 120,000 hectares of arable land each year. Nigerois compensate by overusing their shrinking farmland, creating erosion and exacerbating the land loss. This process is why Niger scores low on environmental health in the EPI. "It's extremely difficult for people here to think from year to year or month to month or even day to day," says Jean Bernard Duchemin, director of the Sahel Medical Research Facility. "They are in survival mode, all the time, every single day."
Niger's herdsmen and farmers might be able to cope with the erratic rainfall by the time-honored method of diversifying their crops and herds if it weren't for another damaging trend: rising population. In the past 40 years, Niger's population has quadrupled, from 3 million in the 1960s to more than 13 million today. It is still expanding at 3.4 percent a year—faster than any other country. That's partly because cultural norms favor big families, but also because parents try to compensate for an infant mortality rate of one in five. It's a big reason Niger did worse on the EPI than Sahel neighbors such as Burkina Faso and Mali, where birthrates are lower.
Most of Niger's citizens do without basic amenities like clean drinking water, and suffer from waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea, parasites and various stomach ailments. In the small settlement of Tandarbouka, a gathering of a few mud huts in the middle of a vast rocky plain filled with the carcasses of goats and camels, a herder named Amadour recently spent four hours hauling muddy water out of a 23-meter-deep homemade well to feed his small herd of five cows and 10 goats. The brackish water was all that remained of last year's watershed. The clean-water table lay another 120 meters below the surface—too far to dig, and the nearest deep well is 20 kilometers away, too far for Amadour to travel safely with his animals. After feeding his cows, he brought the bucket to his lips and drank deeply of the brown mud. "These people don't have access to even one glass of clean water," says Ariane Kirtley, a Yale researcher who spent years in Niger working to improve water conditions. "They don't know that they need to boil the mud they drink."
Without water, the locals can't build infrastructure that would bring education, health care or employment. Fifty percent of Niger's population has no access to basic health care, according to a 2006 study. Kirtley conducted an improvised survey of health awareness and was shocked by the results. "Not one of the people I interviewed had heard of HIV/AIDS," she says. One little girl's face had swelled up so much she had trouble breathing. The culprit? An unwashed pimple.
Nutrition is lacking, too. As water diminishes, livestock herds have shrunk, which means less meat and milk to go around. With farms failing, many Nigerois rely on wild plants. In the village of Saroki Soulay, vendors at a local market were unloading a truck of huge sacks of leaves, from which people make a staple sauce. "The dependence on wild products is an effective indicator of low levels of well-being," says a recent U.N. report on the Sahel.
With such vast challenges, the government has taken a shotgun approach to development, with some success. Child mortality figures have dropped slightly, access to clean water has improved, and several thousand small clinics have opened in some of the most inaccessible areas. The government would also like to see industrial-scale farming, modern machinery and large-scale irrigation projects replace small-scale agriculture, which worries some experts. Government officials "believe the modernization of the agricultural sector is the pathway out of poverty," says Ced Hesse, director of the drylands program at the International Institute for Environment and Development. "There's less emphasis on how do you help the small farmer that represents 80 percent of the population." And with just over a decade of democracy under its belt, Niger is struggling to stay politically stable. Even as China invested $5 billion in June in an oil exploration and prospecting deal, Touareg rebels in the north threatened to attack, briefly kidnapping four French nationals working on uranium mining to protest the government's refusal to negotiate with them.
There's not much relief on the horizon. By 2050, the population is expected to have quadrupled again, to 55 million. Before that, "you could very soon have a tipping point in which you have just too many people, too much livestock," says the United Nations' Egeland. "Then you will suddenly see child mortality go from normally unacceptable levels to exceptionally horrific levels." As global warming threatens food supplies throughout the world, nowhere is the hunger crisis edging closer to catastrophe than in Niger.