KOUBRI, Burkina Faso — More than 2,500 miles away from this village, world leaders met recently in Paris to try to save the earth from severe climate change and its deadly effects. Here in West Africa, people in rural communities scrape together livelihoods in a region that is extra-vulnerable to drought and hunger, problems brought on by global warming.
Even as the United Nations-sponsored Paris climate conference features meetings on Africa, the range of water and energy difficulties for the continent is vast and varied, defying a single solution let alone the confines of an international climate agreement.
In Koubri, a Benedictine monastery has felt the vagaries of climate change subtly, as it runs an extensive farm on which it has thrived for more than three decades. The monastery, tucked behind high walls amid dry brush, low trees and reddish-dirt roads, is strategically positioned near two dams, one built by the government in 1961 and one built by the monks in 1975.
The monastery, located 45 minutes south of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, is well known in the area for its agriculture products. Its fresh milk and yogurt, produced on the farm, are sold through an outlet in Ouagadougou. The milk is light but flavorful, a meal in itself when drunk out of the plastic pouches that are also sold in the monastery’s retail shop on site.
Brother Jean Christophe, a Burkinabé who has lived in the monastery since 2000, talked with visitors about the farm and how climate change has changed its operation. The interview took place in an oval-shaped meeting room made of cement, with open slatted windows to keep air circulating in and the relentless sunshine out.
Ten to 15 years ago, Brother Christophe said, the seasonal rains had always begun in May and June, but now they don’t start until July and have become erratic, stormier. The downpour is heavier, he said, but those conditions now last for a shorter period. Sometimes, it rains so much at once that the dams flood.
The rains end in October, as they have for eons, but when the amount of rain is low, farming becomes trickier for the monks and the nuns who work and live on the grounds. They grow vegetables and fruit besides running the large dairy. They now use more water than in the past to keep the farm going because of rising temperatures.
Yet not all their problems are related to the environment. A main issue, Brother Christophe said, was the population boom, as more people are flocking from other villages to use the water in the dams for their own households and farms.
“They need more every year,” he said, speaking in French and wearing a brown monk’s robe, the hood down. Irrigation through motorized pumps gets the water from the dams to subsistence farms close by, and wells are also dug but not on a prolific scale.
No water recycling is done on the farm and electricity is somewhat scarce: only the nuns have solar panels. As Brother Christophe said, “We’d like to have that.”
He may get his wish. A new solar photovoltaic plant, the largest in the sub-Saharan region, is about to be built through a Canadian company, on a site three hours west of the capital. But water will remain a challenge for all Burkinabé until a more comprehensive approach can meet the growing population’s needs.
One of the original monks in the monastery was responsible for building 120 small dams in the countryside, Brother Christophe said, but he died. The monks have no plans to build more dams in Koubri or elsewhere, as they have enough trouble maintaining the ones under their purview — few villagers help out and crocodiles get in and chew holes through the walls, though apparently they do not live in the Koubri dams.
Those dams go dry from April through July, leaving some harvesting impossible. “Every year it grows hotter,” Brother Christophe said, pointing to one of the slatted windows in the meeting room, where the temperature outside was 90-plus degrees on an early December afternoon and no breeze drifted through.
“Now it should be cooler,” he said, “so imagine what it’s like here in the hot season of April and May.”
With no air-conditioners in sight, it took imagination, indeed, to picture life on the farm during the blistering-hot months, when average daily temperatures soar past 100 degrees and sit there until nightfall. Nevertheless, the monastery grows grapefruit and orange trees as well as onions and cabbage, sustaining the farm of 21 monks and 30 nuns and sending exports to the capital.
This year, however, the farm was short on water to harvest the rice. “Some years, we don’t finish with that crop,” Brother Christophe said, shaking his head but not dour about the situation.
Climate change is a major problem in sub-Saharan Africa, where national economies depend on natural resources, including agriculture, to survive. Much of the region’s climate, especially in the Sahel region, extending right below the Sahara, is characterized by long stretches of parched-dry months interspersed with heavy seasonal rainfall. Now, rising temperatures and unpredictable downpours have left the region more vulnerable, and soil has been degraded.
Burkina Faso needs to make progress fast to cope with global warming and its effects. This dusty, landlocked nation of 17 million is primarily rural, with 80 percent of the population relying on subsistence farming. Cotton is the main export and gold the mother of minerals, drawing international mining companies. Work on improving Burkina’s resilience has been underway for decades by national and international agencies, including a cluster of United Nations agencies, operating even during political upheavals.
The results have not been comprehensive enough to fully manage the droughts and unpredictable rainfall. Coupled with a population that is expected to double by 2030 to 27 million and is exceedingly young — on average, 17 years old — Burkina requires extensive mobilization.
Recently, the country voted in its first free, fair democratic election in 27 years, putting a politician named Roch Marc Kaboré in the presidency. The government has ministries in place to address its urgent environmental and socioeconomic needs, but it requires motivated politicians and money to modernize soon.
The new solar plant to be built in the countryside is one measure of progress. A project of a Canadian company, it will have a 20-megawatt capacity, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. The plant will be connected to Burkina Faso’s existing power grid producing electricity using thermal, hydro and smaller solar sources.
A spokesman for Windiga, the company behind the plant, said that construction will begin in January and finish in 12 to 14 months. Siemens, the German company, is constructing it.
Getting water to people also needs scaling up. The Burkinabé, with international partners, have built dams in the capital and the countryside, in addition to the dams the monks built, but some sources say these will not be enough to meet the doubling population. In rural Burkina particularly, more water must be made available for livestock, irrigation and household use.
A program of Unicef, based in Ouagadougou, called Wash, focuses on helping villages find more water by paying for drilling of wells. This year, 47,100 Burkinabé gained access to a reliable water supply rather than ended up relying on run-off or surface collection, said Daniel Spalthoff, the Wash program chief in Burkina Faso.
Outside the monastery, among the small farms dotting the village of Koubri, people were busy even in the heat, working their lush plots of vegetables, trucking out hay and building low clay-brick buildings.
One young man was lying on his back across the seat of his motor scooter parked under a shea — or karité — tree. He was guarding his plot of eggplants, how he made his living, making good use of the dam a few hundreds yards away. He assured visitors there were no crocodiles around.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.