NAIROBI - A multimillion dollar initiative that should help some of the world’s poorest people to better cope with droughts and pest infestations is being launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The $14.5 million project aims to conserve and restore damaged forests, soils, water systems and other key life-support systems in southern Niger and northern Nigeria.

Niger, ranked second to last on the United Nation’s poverty index, has been racked by drought and, more recently, locust infestations. It has led to an estimated third of the more than 11 million people in Niger suffering severe food shortages.

Experts believe that the country is now more vulnerable to natural disasters like droughts and plagues as a result of human pressures such as overgrazing, felling of forests for fuel and water pollution.

Such pressures are deemed to be highest on the borders between the countries and have become a source of tension and conflict between villages and communities.

The wide-ranging project aims to strengthen the way natural resources are managed, boost the legal and institutional frameworks that oversee these areas and streamline cooperation between the two countries.

Experts believe these actions can play their part in alleviating poverty, and increasing food production, while improving the health and viability of the region’s fragile, wildlife-rich, habitats and ecosystems.

Len Good, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the multibillion dollar GEF fund, for which UNEP is one of the three implementing agencies, said: “The tragic images of people suffering and starving in Niger have shocked us all. In the short term, these people desperately need food and medicines and reliable and stable markets for grain and livestock. In the long term, however, we must help them to reclaim their future. This can only be done by reducing the pressures on their natural resources through the improved management of soil, vegetation and water systems."

“In doing so we will not only be bolstering these communities so that they can better handle the environmental shocks of droughts and plague, we will also be helping to put them on track towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals, from improved water supplies and better health, to the empowerment of women and reduced child mortality”, he added.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “In mid-September,Heads of State will gather in New York to review the implementation of these Goals. It is my sincere hope that, as underlined by this new project, they will fully agree that the environment is not a luxury but is ‘natural capital’ needed for overcoming poverty and delivering peaceful, long-lasting development."

Under the new project, over 20 pilot areas are to be established in communities linked with four river catchments shared by Niger and Nigeria. These are the Maggia-Lamido, Gada-Gulbin Maradi, Tagwai-El Fadama and Komadugu catchments.

The pilots will include natural resource conflict prevention, evaluations of biological resources, management of degraded sites, the pinpointing of sustainable practices and new and profitable alternatives to unsustainable and damaging activities in areas such as food production and energy.

Better managing shared water resources and fisheries may also be part of the project with proposals to reclaim degraded lands in areas such as the Komadugu Yobe and Tagwai-El Fadama.

Notes to Editors

Total funding for phase 1 of the Integrated Ecosystem Management of Transboundary Areas between Nigeria and Niger amounts to $14,497,500, of which the GEF will contribute $5 million. The rest comes from the two Governments concerned, as well as from other development partners.

A second phase is planned amounting to just under $14 million. The two phases are scheduled to take eight years.

Reference : UNEP 306