Fewer Children, Fewer Climate Risks?

Niger Ponders a Controversial Option

Photos courtesy of Pencils for Kids, a Canadian organization that provides education, training, and income-generating opportunities to communities in Niger, focusing on the needs of children and women.

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 three-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 that 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 birth rates 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.

Effective, But Controversial

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-percent 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.

Photos courtesy of Pencils for Kids, a Canadian organization that provides education, training, and income-generating opportunities to communities in Niger, focusing on the needs of children and women.

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

Nigerien authorities 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 percent of Nigeriens 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 organization 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.

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.

Photos courtesy of Pencils for Kids, a Canadian organization that provides education, training, and income-generating opportunities to communities in Niger, focusing on the needs of children and women.

Ayouba and [Issa] Garba said current projections—which show the population of Niger tripling by 2050, from 22 million people today, according to UN 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 urbanization, 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 percent 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.

In the Plan?

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 UN guidelines that inform such adaptation plans do not urge that family planning be a part of them.

Should Niger make clear the link between reducing birth rates 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 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.”

One thought on “Fewer Children, Fewer Climate Risks?

  1. Time to bring back ZPG, for everyone, not just the poor. Every time some woman gets press coverage for having 21 children, there should be an outcry about the charge upon the earth, to make the connection to climate change. One woman, one child, would be the easiest, cheapest and most effective weapon against climate change we have, striking straight to the heart of the problem, but what do we hear from our leaders? Taxing carbon, electric vehicles, yada, yada, yada. With all due respect, those are men’s solutions, and they will not do the job. Now is the era of women and their solutions. Climate change is the direct result of overpopulation, and this crisis is an intelligence test for the specie. Will we pass?

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