Why educating girls could be crucial to how Nigeria copes with global warming

The work of an education centre in the northern city of Zaria is helping improve access to quality education for girls with the added benefit of making their families and communities more resilient to climate change.

T emperatures in the Sahel, the semi-arid zone where the Sahara desert transitions to savannah, are rising 1.5 times faster than global averages. Here soil will be drier, retaining less moisture, making it harder to grow food and for subsistence farmers to survive.

Nigeria borders this area to the north and the signs of climate change here are already emerging, according to Yusuf Sani Ahmed, an agricultural expert at Ahmadu Bello University: “The temperature can be 44℃, which is high, and the streams are becoming drier and drier.” 

This means a low water table, less vegetation and malnourished livestock, says Ahmed. Arable land is under threat from development, compounding the problem for herders and farmers in northern Nigerian and leading to violent conflict: “There’s less available land, and also not much is growing because things are drier. It is so competitive.”

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s population is booming – already the seventh-largest in the world at 200 million, it is expected to grow to more than 484 million people by 2050, making it the third-largest. In 30 years’ time, a large and predominantly young population will increase demand for education and jobs, as well as food and sanitation, in the midst of a climate crisis. If these needs are not met, the risk of poverty and vulnerability to extremism, through groups such as Boko Haram, is a real concern.

Climate and education

Yet, through a different approach, the Center for Girls’ Education (CGE) in the northern city of Zaria could turn the country’s growing youth population into an asset for climate change adaptation. Founded in 2007 by US medical anthropologist Daniel Perlman, CGE runs a series of programmes to help girls and young women stay in school and to improve the quality of their education, in a country where 10.5 million children are out of school, including more than half of the girls in north-eastern and north-western states. It has a particular focus on impoverished communities, where the cost of attending school may be an additional barrier to girls.

While advancing girls’ education in Nigeria is its primary aim, CGE’s work could also benefit the environment. Climate change can put girls’ education in countries like Nigeria at even greater risk: in extreme drought, families may withdraw girls from school so they can help collect water, for example, while early marriage and a girl’s dowry may bring greater financial security to a family faced with increasingly scarce resources. But research suggests that when girls are educated, their families and local communities become more resilient and adaptive to the effects of climate change.

For every additional year of schooling a girl receives on average, her country’s resilience to climate disasters can be expected to improve by 3.2 points on indexes that measure vulnerability to climate-related disasters, suggests research from Brookings Institution. Education can help develop leadership skills in women that can benefit future conservation and sustainability efforts and introduce training for green sector jobs, particularly in need in developing nations, at an early age.

Other countries

Beyond Nigeria, changing attitudes to girls’ education in Afghanistan are helping families find more stable incomes as their traditional livelihoods are threatened by climate change; while in Thailand, early years education about climate change adaptation is helping communities and older generations better understand the risks and actions available.

According to research institute Project Drawdown, girls’ education is the sixth most effective strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in part, because women with more years in education have fewer children on average, thus reducing population growth and its associated impacts on the climate.

“If universal education for girls were achieved tomorrow, the population in 2050 could be smaller by 1.5 billion people,” write Christina Kwauk and Amanda Braga, in the Brookings Institution report, describing girls’ education as “one of the most overlooked yet formidable mechanisms for mitigating against weather-related catastrophes and adapting to the long-term effects of climate change.”

The ability of girls in the global south to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions should not be overstated, however. “It places the cost for reproductive decisions on girls and women in the Global South while ignoring other anthropogenic factors that contribute to climate,” suggest Kwauk and Braga.

Yet, if there are climate benefits that can exist alongside furthering girls’ education in a region where fewer than one in three girls attends secondary school, supporters advocate for investment from climate-adaptation funds in such initiatives. With funds often devoted to more expensive and high-tech options, educating more girls offers a low-tech alternative with the potential to scale and benefits for the climate, society and women and girl’s human rights.

The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.

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