AGADEZ, Niger — The world dismisses them as economic migrants. The law treats them as criminals who show up at a nation’s borders uninvited. Prayers alone protect them on the journey across the merciless Sahara.
But peel back the layers of their stories and you find a complex bundle of trouble and want that prompts the men and boys of West Africa to leave home, endure beatings and bribes, board a smuggler’s pickup truck and try to make a living far, far away.
They do it because the rains have become so fickle, the days measurably hotter, the droughts more frequent and more fierce, making it impossible to grow enough food on their land. Some go to the cities first, only to find jobs are scarce. Some come from countries ruled by dictators, like Gambia, whose longtime ruler recently refused to accept the results of an election he lost. Others come from countries crawling with jihadists, like Mali.
In Agadez, a fabled gateway town of sand and hustle through which hundreds of thousands exit the Sahel on their way abroad, I met dozens of them. One was Bori Bokoum, 21, from a village in the Mopti region of Mali. Fighters for Al Qaeda clash with government forces in the area, one of many reasons making a living had become much harder than in his father’s time.
One bad harvest followed another, he said. Not enough rice and millet could be eked out of the soil. So, as a teenager, he ventured out to sell watches in the nearest market town for a while, then worked on a farm in neighboring Ivory Coast, saving up for this journey. Libya was his destination, then maybe across the Mediterranean Sea, to Italy.
“To try my luck,” was how Mr. Bokoum put it. “I know it’s difficult. But everyone goes. I also have to try.”
This journey has become a rite of passage for West Africans of his generation. The slow burn of climate change makes subsistence farming, already risky business in a hot, arid region, even more of a gamble. Pressures on land and water fuel clashes, big and small. Insurgencies simmer across the region, prompting United States counterterrorism forces to keep watch from a base on the outskirts of Agadez.
This year, more than 311,000 people have passed through Agadez on their way to either Algeria or Libya, and some onward to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. The largest numbers are from Niger and its West African neighbors, including Mr. Bokoum’s home, Mali.
Scholars of migration count people like Mr. Bokoum among the millions who could be displaced around the world in coming decades as rising seas, widening deserts and erratic weather threaten traditional livelihoods. For the men who pour through Agadez, these hardships are tangled up with intense economic, political and demographic pressures.
“Climate change on its own doesn’t force people to move but it amplifies pre-existing vulnerabilities,” said Jane McAdam, an Australian law professor who studies the trend. They move when they can no longer imagine a future living off their land — or as she said, “when life becomes increasingly intolerable.”
But many of these people fall through the cracks of international law. The United Nations 1951 refugee convention applies only to those fleeing war and persecution, and even that treaty’s obligation to offer protection is increasingly flouted by many countries wary of foreigners.
In such a political climate, policy makers point out, the chances of expanding the law to include those displaced by environmental degradation are slim to none. It explains why the more than 100 countries that have ratified the Paris climate agreement this year acknowledged that environmental changes would spur the movement of people, but kicked the can down the road on what to do about them.
A Barren Outlook
Many migrants pass through Agadez from the villages around Zinder, a city roughly situated between the mouth of the Sahara and Niger’s border with Nigeria. Until 1926, Zinder was Niger’s capital. Then it ran low on water.
Early one gray-yellow morning, I set off from Zinder for a village called Chana, the home of one of the migrants I had met, Habibou Idi. Rows upon rows of millet grew on both sides of the two-lane national highway, punctuated occasionally by a spindly acacia. About an hour outside the city, some boys were raking the soil, yanking out weeds.
An older man sitting to the side said that back when he was a boy, the millet stood so high that you could hardly see workers in the fields. Midway through the growing season, it now barely reaches their knees.
An hour farther out of the city, we veered off the paved road and across a barren, rutted field.
In Chana, there was a steady thud of women pounding beans with wooden pestles. The beans grew along the ground, in the shade of the millet. They were the only crop ready for harvest. And so the people of Chana ate beans, morning and night: beans pounded, boiled, flavored with salt.
As Mr. Idi, 33, led me through his fields, he recalled hearing stories of what Chana looked like before a great drought swept across the Sahel in the 1970s and 1980s. The village was encircled by trees, he was told.
Back then, like most villagers, his father had a cow and plenty of sheep. Their droppings fertilized the land. Today, Mr. Idi said, not a single cow is left in Chana. They were sold to buy food.
Mr. Idi complained that the rains are now hard to predict. Sometimes they come in May, and he rushes out to plant his millet and beans, only to find the clouds closing up and his crops withering. Even when a good rain comes, it just floods. Most of the trees are gone, they were cut for firewood.
Living off the land is no longer an option, so unlike his father or grandfather before him, Mr. Idi has spent the last several years working across the border in Nigeria — hauling goods, watering gardens, whatever he could find.
This summer, for the first time, he boarded a bus to Agadez, and then a truck across the dunes to Algeria. There, he mostly begged.
He lasted only a few months.
The Algerian authorities rounded up hundreds of Nigeriens and deposited them back in Agadez.
That is where I met him, in a line for the bus back to Chana. Sand filled the breast pocket of his tunic. He was bringing home a blanket, a collection of secondhand clothes and 50,000 CFAs (the local currency, pronounced SAY-fas), worth about $100.
That did not last long, either. Mr. Idi arrived home to find that his family had taken out a loan of nearly the same amount in his absence. They had sold four of their five goats, too. There were many mouths to feed: his wife, their four children, plus his late brother’s seven.
Hotter Hots and Unpredictable Rains
Sub-Saharan Africa is in the throes of a population boom, which means that people have to grow more food precisely at a time when climate change is making it all the more difficult. Fertility rates remain higher than in other parts of the world, and Niger has the highest in the entire world: Women bear more than seven children on average.
Once every three years, according to scientists from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS Net, Niger faces food insecurity, or a lack of adequate food to eat. Hunger here is among the worst in the world: About 45 percent of Niger’s children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Meanwhile, in what is already one of the hottest places on Earth, it has gotten steadily hotter: by 0.7 degrees Celsius since 1975, Fews Net has found. Other places in the world are warming faster, for sure. But this is the Sahel, where daytime highs often soar well above 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) and growing food in sandy, inhospitable soil is already difficult.
Niger’s neighbors share many of those woes. In Mali, temperatures have gone up by 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1975. Summer rains have increased, but are not at the levels they were before the drought.
In Chad, temperatures have risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius in the same period, according to FEWS Net. The group, which is financed with United States assistance, has warned that cereal production could drop by 30 percent per capita by 2025.
Chad is where FEWS Net’s chief representative for the Sahel, a meteorologist named Alkhalil Adoum, was born in 1957. As a boy, he loved running through the blinding rains of summer, when you couldn’t even see what was ahead of you. He knew a good rain would fill the savanna with wild fruit, and the first green shoots of sorghum would taste as sweet as sugar cane. His family’s cows, once they ate new grass, would give more milk.
“You love the first rains,” Mr. Adoum said. “You know, as a kid, there’s better times ahead.”
Those rains don’t come anymore, he said.
There are conflicting scientific models about the effects of climate change on precipitation: some say much of sub-Saharan Africa will be wetter; others drier. The main points of agreement is that the rainy season will be more unpredictable and more intense. On top of that, the hottest parts of the continent will get hotter.
Extreme heat can have grievous consequences on food and disease, the World Food Program found in a survey of scientific studies. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes thrive in it. Pests are more likely to attack crops. Corn and wheat yields decline.
A study, published in December by the International Monitoring Displacement Center, found that in 2015 alone, sudden-onset disaster displaced 1.1 million people in Africa from one part of their country to another.