Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mali, where climate change talks mean life or death

Biofuel and solar panels are being used to counter the effects of climate change in Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries. In the second of two reports from the West African country, Farming Editor Steve Dubé explains what Africans want from the climate change summit in Copenhagen

MOTHER-OF-SIX Djenabou Diakité no longer has to worry about snakes in the children’s bedroom at night.

“Now you sometimes see them in the daytime but not at night because the light deters them,” said Djenabou, whose husband and children have all moved away from their home in the village of Garalo in search of work.

Now she looks after her sick neighbour’s grandchildren and survives on what money her own children can send back home.

The light comes from an electricity generator powered by oil extracted from the seed of the jatropha bush, a nitrogen-fixing shrub that is helping villagers in remote regions of the vast sub-Saharan country of Mali in West Africa face up to the problems caused by climate change.

Biofuels and solar panels are among the principal tools being employed by aid organisations like Christian Aid and Mali-Folkecenter as the rains dry up and the Sahara desert expands southwards.

They power pumps bringing clean water from deep underground, irrigate crops, or provide electricity for hospitals and health centres and to help villagers to earn a living.

It’s a cruel irony that those most affected by a changing climate are the poorest countries of the world who have done least to pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

But they are sending a stark message to the developed world.

African countries have agreed to speak with one voice at Copenhagen.

African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping said they want industrialised countries to cut carbon emissions dramatically and accept the principle that the polluter pays with $150bn to help Africa adapt to climate change. It may seem a lot, but it compares with many times that amount – some $24 trillion – used to bale out banks and financial institutions.

Mr Ping said Africa does not have the means to confront the consequences of environmental degradation caused by climate change in an already fragile ecosystem.

“For a continent with only 3.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, Africa is paradoxically the most vulnerable, experiencing the most serious consequences of climate change – drought, floods and soil erosion,” he said. In Mali, the rainy season used to start in May and last to the end of October. Before 1973 the average rainfall was 600mm – around 24.5in – a year.

It’s now 450mm – about one-third less – and the downpours are heavier and cause serious erosion.

And now the rains don’t start until July, and sometimes return unexpectedly late in the year to ruin crops ripening in the sun.

Mali-Folkecenter director Ibrahim Togola will be among the 20,000 delegates at Copenhagen. He said: “If the summit fails it may lead to political collapse and decline in many countries and nobody will want to be leader any more.

“If it fails there will be political consequences for all the leaders going to Copenhagen.

“They know the risk they are taking.

“The world will be different after Copenhagen, whatever happens. Awareness of climate change has grown much faster over the past 12 months and for the first time the civil society of Africa has been mobilised.

“The region already has one of the biggest migration patterns to Europe and it’s growing at an alarming rate.

“It’s already unusual to hear of a boat disappearing in the Mediterranean without hearing there were Malian people on board.

“And the people going to Europe are young people – the strong and dynamic ones. When they know there’s no hope here, the rate of migration will double or even treble.”

Mr Togola said investing in Africa now would ensure that rich countries would not have to invest in other ways.

The economy of Mali is based on agriculture. Eighty per cent of people are directly involved in farming, growing crops to feed themselves and producing a cash crop – probably cotton – to provide a bit extra.

Mr Togola said Mali, despite being the seventh poorest country in the world, has a relatively stable democracy.

But he said: “If the economy collapses further you won’t see that. There will be a civil war.”

Malians are doing their best, with help from aid charities, to steer a path out of their problems using renewable energy solutions.

Mali-Folkecenter – MFC – works in partnership with Christian Aid in the village of Tabakoro, one of three that are now solar-powered through a joint MFC-Christian Aid project.

Photovoltaic panels provide lighting for the school, the health centre and the main village roads and public spaces, and power pumps and taps that draw sweet water from a deep well.

The villagers are also taught to construct buildings without using wood in order to preserve trees.

The project has reduced water related diseases and been a special help to women, who can now collect water from a nearby tap instead of walking long distances.

They can also use the school after dark, when their daytime chores are over, to learn basic money-handling skills that increase their earning power at market.

The health centre has a fridge for storing vaccine and snake bite serum, cutting out the need for a 6km walk to the nearest town for vaccine and ice. Kandiatu Koné, a 36-year-old mother of six, said water in the old wells turned red during the dry season and children, in particular, fell ill after drinking it.

She said: “Even in normal times you had to wake up early in the morning to go looking for water.

“The quality is much better now.”

At the school, a concrete building with a tin roof furnished with small desks of the kind that were common in Britain until the 1950s or 1960s, Faeoudiam Fatou Doumbea said she started lessons this year at the age of 50.

“I began to come here because I wanted to be able to manage the crops and store cereal and grain, to be able to count what I put in and take out,” she said.

“After I finish my work and after dinner I come here six nights a week and stay until I get sleepy. It’s very hard to come here after work, but without the light it wouldn’t even be possible.” She said the women learn the alphabet and numbers, and she appreciates the lessons so much she often takes a book home to try to teach herself.

She said: “I know it will open my mind and I will be able to raise my living standards. I have two daughters and two sons who all attend school and they love seeing me come here at night to learn things.

“It’s good for the men too because they can see the difference in an increase in the family income.

“Women who come here are much more able to sort out their money and to evaluate situations. Before this women had to call for a man to come and count their money and write it down. Now they can do it themselves.”

She said everybody enjoys the classes, which have brought them closer together. The women have agreed that if someone misses a class they have to pay a small fine.

Electricity, this time from biofuel generators, has also transformed life in the village of Garalo, which is reached after a bumpy two-hour journey from the nearest town of Bougouni along a deeply-rutted red dirt track. There the village mayor, Souliman Sanaké, talks of the Jatropha biofuel project that began in September 2007.

“This is just the beginning. It’s the same as in the city – electricity brings awareness and here it has helped people to work in local production, like shea butter, cashew nuts and other things. We now have fridges to store food and vaccine.”

A few strategically placed street lights have improved security and school lessons can now go on longer. This year every child over nine years old passed their exams.

Jatropha, the plant that provides the biofuel for the electricity generator, is a small tree that grows to around 5m and lives for 50 years. It comes into full production after five years. The seed is pressed to produce oil and the “cake” left over is a good organic fertiliser.

Pierre Dembelé is in charge of climate change at MFC. He went to Cardiff in the Cut the Carbon march of June/July 2007.

He said: “There is a Jatropha producers’ cooperative and we’ve set up a private company to buy the seed and run the power plant.”

The Mali government meets 50% of the cost of a project that costs around £580,000, involves around 450 farmers and provides no fewer than 30 villages in the commune of Garalo. Jatropha fixes nitrogen in the soil and is inter-cropped with food crops like beans, maize and peanuts and also cotton.

And as it thrives on poor land and improves fertility, there’s no conflict between growing for food or fuel.

Alain Dembelé, the Malian government representative in Garalo knows how the climate is changing because he keeps rainfall records.

He said: “Quantity is important but it’s when it rains and how it’s distributed that makes a difference. Rainfall is unpredictable now. There was not enough rain in June and July so people were making sacrifices. Later the rain came.”

Mr Dembelé, who has worked in six of the eight regions of Mali said he has noticed that grass now grows less vigorously and four varieties have completely disappeared in the bush.

But he said electricity makes a huge difference to people’s lives.

“When I was young I thought electricity was for wealthy people.

“But now it’s increasingly a factor in development,” he said.

“Tomorrow is market day and my wife will earn 1500 CFA francs – less than £2 – by selling ice in the market. It might not be important in terms of your pound but here it’s a lot of money.”

Mamadou Kané, aged 66, who has three wives and 23 children, 13 boys and 10 girls, is President of the Garalo Electricity Cooperative.

He said he used to use a small generator to pump water in his compound and spent a lot of money on diesel and other running costs.

He said: “Now I don’t pump water before the generator comes on at 4pm, I don’t have to buy spare parts to fix the generator and or diesel so it’s much easier for me.”

The biofuel plants send clean water to 68 taps in the Garalo commune, and two communities of Bobo people who have migrated from the north each have a tap.

Mali-Folkecenter director Ibrahim Togola says Christian Aid does not dictate what Malians should do to tackle their problems but supports realistic solutions that they want to adopt.

“It’s clear that climate change is affecting us all. People are also affected in the rich countries, but here we are more vulnerable,” he said.

Dec 10 2009 by Steve Dube, Western Mail

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