06/26/2012 11:04 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

In Niger, a Community Effort to Hold Back the Sand

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

What may be the best metaphor for what's going on in the Sahel is a very real problem for people in Niger: How do you stop a sand dune?

Counterpart International has been working in the Zinder and Diffa regions of southeastern Niger for years, in nutrition, health and agriculture. And part of our job is helping people stabilize dunes so they don't encroach on towns, on farmland and maybe especially on wetlands.

Not all of Niger is arid, and many of its people live near wetlands. A farmer might have some other land for grain crops but then might have a patch of the village's wetlands to work for vegetables. In a drought, the groundwater recedes, and the drier land can't produce without plenty of irrigation. The wetlands are crucial, and people can't afford to have them buried by the advancing sand.

The job of stopping the dunes is a community effort, even a multi-community effort when a few villages share the wetlands.

A Day's Labor, a Month's Food

Counterpart works out the plan with Niger government technical experts, mapping out a dune in 20-meter squares. Then, on a given day, at least one person from each household - as few as 20, as many as a couple hundred -- comes to get the job done.

The workers put up makeshift fencing of palm tree branches and plant native shrubs. The workers usually are paid with a month's worth of basic foods, typically lentils, vegetable oil and grain.

The palm fencing is temporary, but it should hold the sand in place until the shrubs are established and can take over the job. The danger, though, is animals: They trample the fencing, they graze on the young plants, and the work is undone.

So the community has to set up a group of wardens to guard the dune. For the first few weeks, the community pays them to be there day and night. Afterward, they check on the dune periodically and organize repair work when it's needed.

Building a Better Harvest

We're helping people make the best of the land they have and improve their harvests - and the nutrition of their families. In the drier areas, that means distributing improved, drought-resistant seeds. In the wetlands, it means helping farmers diversify crops and organizing groups to manage use of water pumps. In both areas, it means teaching better techniques for more sustainable farming.

We're working through community health centers to improve nutrition. It's so easy for people to slip into malnutrition. The focus is on pregnant and lactating women so their babies can be healthy. Malnutrition causes more than two-thirds of the deaths of young children in Niger.

A Better Life With Kids

One of our Niger programs involves goats. It's not a big program, and it's not an instant cure for the Sahel, but it's another way to keep the metaphorical sand dunes at bay.

We look for the most vulnerable women in a village and provide them each a pair of goats along with training in the care of the animals. After the first pair of goats has kids, and once the kids are big enough, we pass the parent goats to another woman. She gets the next set of kids, and the parents go to another woman. Each of these women has milk in the house, and her family has more food security.

Not all of the problems in the Sahel are caused by drought. Some villages have suffered from a small flood of young men. They used to be workers or soldiers in Libya, when Muammar Gaddafi was in power, and now they've had to return home. They don't have jobs, and their families don't have the money they used to send back with every paycheck.

We're working so people can stay in their homes instead of becoming refugees or losing their children to malnutrition. We want them to keep the lives they've led, but with better health and better food security. And that means finding ways -- lots of ways -- to hold back the sand dunes.