Fewer children, fewer climate risks? Niger ponders a controversial option

by Sebastien Malo | @SebastienMalo | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 7 October 2019 10:17 GMT

A midwife puts a bandage on a woman who after she has undergone a medical procedure to receive a contraceptive implant at a medical clinic in Niamey, Niger, on 17 September, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sebastien Malo

Image Caption and Rights Information

In a nation with the world's highest birth rate and growing risks to food and water security from climate change, reducing births may be one way to adapt

By Sebastien Malo

NIAMEY, Oct 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Abdulaziz, Aminatu, Absatu, Abdulmanaf. Fahad. And, well, also Mansour. They are the names Zeinab Garba has in mind for any future children she has.

But for now the mother of two has decided to set aside plans for more offspring by using a contraceptive, to give a better future to Rachid, her restless 3-year-old boy, and her newborn son Bilyaminou, mostly a passionate sleeper for now.

"I'm proud to wear the (contraceptive) implant," said Garba, 20.

In a country with the world's highest birth rate per woman, hers is an uncommon move and, to some, a controversial one.

But environmentalists and youth activists in Niger hope it is one more families will embrace, to help reduce threats from the destructive effects of a changing climate.

Climate change has meant Niger has seen a swift rise in temperatures and less abundant water flows in rivers, in addition to more intense droughts and floods, said Issa Lele, a meteorologist with the United Nations Development Programme.

That is a growing threat to food and water supplies - and the pressures heighten as the nation's population booms, with each woman having on average 7.6 children, said Sani Ayouba, the director of environmental group Young Volunteers for the Environment.

"We're not saying to stop having children," Ayouba, who has three offspring of his own, said at a September meeting with local non-profit leaders, prompting a wave of laughter.

Instead, he said, his group advocates the use of contraceptives to slow the rate of births - a relief to one listener who said he was expecting his fifth child.

Around the world, a rising global population is increasing pressure on the world's limited resources, with every additional person in need of food, transport, energy and other resources that drive climate change.

That pressure is worst in the richest countries, where each additional person consumes far more resources than an added child in a poorer country.

But very high birthrates in places like Niger also mean the country's own limited resources must be shared among more people - a particular problem as climate change disrupts farming and herding, threatening food supplies.

A pharmacist handles boxes of contraceptive pills at a pharmacy in Niamey, Niger, on September 16, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sebastien Malo


At the clinic where Garba was getting a contraceptive implant on a September afternoon, in the district of Talladje in Niamey, herds of cows made their way to pasture just outside.

She breathed deeply when a midwife poked two tiny holes in her arm with a needle and slid in the small, elongated implant.

The five-minute procedure will give her three years without a pregnancy, with a 99% effectiveness rate, the midwife said.

The pill is by far the most popular birth control method in Niger, but at this clinic of the international charity Marie Stopes it is an implant, placed under the skin, that most women seek, said Adama Abdoulaye, a doctor who coordinates the clinic.

More women like Garba streamed in and out of the center's waiting room, glancing at soap operas playing on the television.

Nigerien authorites back some aspects of family planning, and have begun to allocate money toward the push, said Issoufou Harou, director of family planning at Niger's Ministry of Public Health.

But a national budget of 200 million FCFA ($340,000) for purchasing contraceptives doesn't go far enough, said Salamatou Traore, president of the Coalition of Stakeholders for the Repositioning of Family Planning in Niger.

Even that budget - and Garba's tiny implant - raise big questions in this highly devout Islamic society, however.

Some 99% of Nigerians are Muslim, census data shows, and Islam does not advocate limiting the number of children in a family if they are well cared for, said Sita Amadou of the Islamic Association of Niger, the chief Islamic organisation in the country.

That complicates the ambitious plans of environmental activists who since last year have been working to spread family planning as a buffer against the effects of climate change in Niger.

The activists have met with parliamentarians and cabinet ministers, as well as a range of community groups.

Nigerien non-profit representatives listen to a presentation on family planning and climate change at the Niamey offices of Young Volunteers for the Environment, in Niger, on September 16, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sebastien Malo

At a recent gathering, in a small, damp room in Niamey, a dozen representatives listened, silently at first, to the pitch about a novel way of fighting growing climate pressures.

"It's not just about investing in agriculture so that it is organic or sustainable but also in contraceptive methods and family planning everywhere," said Ayouba, who spoke alongside Issa Garba, who heads the Nigerien Youth Network on Climate Change.

But worries quickly arose from a handful of listeners. Muslim authorities will not accept the proposal, one participant commented.

Ayouba and Garba said current projections - which show the population of Niger tripling by 2050, from 22 million people today, according to U.N. estimates - are untenable.

By some estimates, Niamey, Niger's sleepy capital of 1 million, could become one of the 10 largest cities in Africa by 2100, with as many as 50 million residents as a result of population growth and urbanisation, European scientists said in the journal Earth's Future earlier this year.

The country's 2012-2020 Action Plan for Family Planning commits to making contraceptives available to half of the population by next year - though their availability is less than 20% for now, government data shows.

But Niger's population growth rate is not simply the result of lack of access to contraception, said Abdou Batouati, a researcher at the Institute for Research in Human Sciences at Niamey's Abdou Moumouni University.

"Culturally, in Niger, women space out their births at a rate of a child every two years," he said.

In the city's open markets, among bars of soap, stalls of lemons and the calls of salesmen, some vendors sell boxes of contraceptive pills, stacked in colorful towers atop trays carried on the vendors' heads.

The Pharmacy du Point, in the affluent district of Plateau, also sells them. On a table, the manager spreads out rectangular peach, blue and orange boxes of the contraceptives, which sell for anywhere from 300 to 3,060 FCFA ($0.50 to $5.10).

But some people think that the pill "is a way to get people into debauchery," said Adama Jonathan, a midwife at the clinic that helped Garba with her contraceptive implant.

Sani Ayouba, head of the non-profit Young Volunteers for the Environment, gives a presentation on family planning and climate change to Nigerien non-profit representatives in Niamey, Niger, on September 16, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sebastien Malo


Niger is currently developing a national plan on how it will adapt to climate threats, aiming to integrate those efforts into government planning and budgeting.

In what would be a pioneering move, it may include a section noting the links between boosting family planning and lessening climate change impacts.

"I do not mind doing it, but before that I need to have the approval of my officials" to do so, said Gousmane Moussa, the plan's liaison to national authorities.

He said U.N. guidelines that inform such adaptation plans do not urge family planning be a part of them.

Should Niger make clear the link between reducing birthrates and lowering climate risks, it might be the first such case in a national plan, said Christian Ledwell, an adaptation plan specialist at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canadian think tank.

But the idea ruffles plenty of feathers in the Sahelian country.

While preparing for the afternoon prayer on the campus of the Abdou Moumouni University, Laminou Adamou Abdoul Azize - a member of the Association of Muslim Students of Niger - said the the idea of ​​a family planning awareness campaign left him lukewarm.

Islam already demands that births be spaced by 30 months, more than the World Health Organization recommendation of 24 months, said Azize, who at 30 has two children and says he will take as many as God provides.

Seydou Boubacar, the former head of the Islamic Association of Niger, offered a blunter rationale for opposing family planning.

"Non-profits, when speaking of family planning, encourage youth to debauchery," he insisted.

"As soon as they speak of spacing out births, all they do is show rubbers, and that is not okay."

(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers climate change, humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)


Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.