By Chris Arsenault
DJIMEBOUGOU, MALI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dust blows through the dry fields of Djimebougou village of central Mali as a dozen men, some in ripped jeans and others in traditional robes, dig into hard-packed sand to reinforce a dyke to channel scarce water onto thirsty fields.
The rainy season arrives in June but for now there is not much to do in this sleepy, drought-prone village halfway between Mali's capital Bamako and the Mauritanian border.
Growing enough food has never been easy in Mali, but climate change is robbing West Africa's Sahel region of already unreliable rainfall.
But a series of small changes - a meter-high wall to capture rainwater, a newly-built fish pond, expanded vegetable gardens and more efficient wood stoves – are helping families eke out an existence in one of the world's poorest countries.
These projects, rather than large-scale investment, are crucial if Mali is to feed its fast-growing population, experts say, for after years of political upheaval the burden for funding and implementing simple, life-saving food projects is left to non-government organizations and the United Nations.
The Malian government has almost no presence in this village of mud and straw huts or in hundreds of others like it.
There are no powerlines, running water, Internet or even a small store and the nearest market town is 40 km (25 miles) away along unpaved roads traveled by donkey carts and the big white SUVs of foreign organizations.
In the lean season before the rains, the village's 485 residents charge cheap Chinese cellphones with car batteries, gossip in the shade to avoid the scorching sun, or work on foreign-backed aid projects when the funding is available.
"We still can't produce enough food for the village, but we are getting there," Maheta Sacko, the local chief, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the rest of the community watching with fascination.
Mali faces a range of problems to improve food supplies: widespread poverty, conflict, water shortages, the impact of climate change, and a fast-growing population.
But efforts to better manage the region's scarce water and improve its farming techniques could help Mali's cycle of hunger and poverty, according to U.N. officials and local leaders.
Political obstacles, including an insurgency in the country's north and a series of coups in the capital, impede what little progress has been made.
The country of 15 million has faced three droughts in the last decade. Rain comes mainly between June to September and much runs off from the parched fields, taking topsoil with it.
Simple water management infrastructure, including rainwater storage facilities and irrigation dykes, like the ones young men are building in Djimebougou, play a crucial role, residents said. Green grass sprouts on the side of the wall where water is kept but a few feet away is dusty brown sand.
Financed by the World Food Programme (WFP), the work-for-aid project gives local men some money before planting season.
"Water is the stepping stone for any other activity," WFP's Mark Sauveur told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Once villagers have regular water, they can create vegetable gardens, keep their animals healthy and replant trees, he said.
Deforestation, which can make rainfall more erratic, is a big problem in the village, one being addressed with the introduction of clay stoves, which villagers can build themselves with local clay and a donated steel mold.
The stoves halve a family's need for firewood.
"Now that we don't have to cut as much wood, we can spend more time growing our vegetable gardens," said Daly Sacko, head of the town's women's committee.
Sacko said he began seeing the impact of global warming 15 years ago with changed precipitation patterns and less rain.
As their harvests failed, many Djimebougou residents planned to move to cities or the capital Bamako in search of work but where they were likely to swell the ranks of the urban jobless.
But Sacko said interventions to shore up water supplies and provide jobs helped prevent large-scale migration.
Like other towns across North Africa, Djimebougou faces a high rate of population growth with Mali recording the world's second highest birth rate behind Niger, according to U.S. data. The average Malian woman has more than six children and that always makes it a challenge to grow enough food.
Across the Sahel, food production is not keeping pace with population growth, according to an October study from Sweden's Lund University.
In 22 arid countries in Africa's Sahel and north, the population has risen 30 percent in a decade to 471 million in 2010, one of the fastest growth rates in the world.
LACK OF INVESTMENT?
Despite a fast growing population and expanding deserts, some analysts believe Mali has the capacity to feed itself.
"Mali should be self-sufficient in food," said Souleymane Coulibaly, a technical advisor to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Coulibaly, who regularly visits remote farming communities, blames a lack of government investment in basic infrastructure – such as the dykes and gardens of Djimebougou - for leaving an estimated 1.8 million Malians hungry.
A focus on exporting cotton, shea nuts and other commodities to be refined elsewhere doesn't help, he said.
"It's not normal that Mali should import rice," he said, referring to irrigated farmland near the Niger River.
Malian officials concede conditions are far from ideal, but say they are working hard to support small-scale farmers who make up 80 percent of the country's workforce.
"We are aware there is less and less rain," Aboumediane Toure, director of the Ministry of Rural Development, said in an interview. "That's why we have been working to master and manage the water from rivers (with new irrigation plans)."
The central government invited local authorities in Djimebougou to submit a "wish list" of infrastructure projects and villagers requested help building communal gardens but nothing came of it, said Sacko.
Instead most of the work has been left to NGOs and U.N. organizations, he said.
"It's dry now, so we are working to be ready for when the rains come," Sacko said. "Things have changed a lot in the past years, now that we have the gardens and dykes."
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault; Editing by Laurie Goering and Belinda Goldsmith)