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Niger: The Battle to Avoid Major Food Crisis

Amidst early signs of malnutrition, efforts are being made by government and aid agencies to stave off the worst of the food shortages.
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A child in Niger holds a packet of plumpy nut.

Keita, Niger:

In Niger, efforts to prevent a major food crisis are underway, after the government declared that an estimated 5 million people, or one third of the population, could be at risk from shortages.

“Niger is in a situation of crisis” says Denise Brown, head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in Niger. “Women and children are suffering the most – people simply cannot get enough food to put on the table.”

The malnutrition rate is estimated at about 16%. Anything above 15% is classified as an emergency.

Tahoua district is one of the worst affected regions in Niger, and in the village of Keita, the early signs of malnutrition are already there.

By the time I got there one morning, around twenty mothers had already arrived with their children, some of whom were crying softly and chewing on packets of plumpy nut, a fortified nut paste given out to children showing early signs of being malnourished.

“I brought my grandson here because he is sick. He has diarrhoea and worms. There’s nothing nutritious for the children to eat” says Sunana Aichatou, pointing tiredly towards the market. “Tomatoes and potatoes are for sale but they are just too expensive for us to buy.”

The problems have come early this year. What is known as the ‘lean season’ (the period just before the rains arrive and planting for the next harvest can begin) usually hits hardest in April and May. This year, shortages have begun early due to an erratic rainy season and 2011’s poor harvest.

Unfavourable factors

Government figures suggest a deficit in cereal production of 675,000 tonnes. Coupled with the increase in the price of imports, especially of rice from South East Asia, this deficit is causing a hike of prices in local markets. In some places, grains and cereals are apparently already 30% more expensive than they were in the same period last year.

The situation is not being helped by the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from neighbouring Mali in the region of Tillaberi, who are fleeing fighting between Tuareg rebels and the Mali government. Nor has the situation been helped by the fact that, since the Libyan conflict to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, an estimated 200,000 Nigeriens who had been working in Libya returned home. And with that, an important flow of remittance money dried up.

According to Action Against Hunger (ACH), people’s resilience is low following previous food crises in 2005 and 2010. “People are really at their wit’s end” says Thierry Metais, Director of ACH Niger. “Many people lost half their animals and most of their stocks in 2010 - and there simply hasn’t been enough time to recover.”

Government response

However, despite the gravity of the situation, there remains genuine optimism from the aid community that the new government of President Mahamadou Issoufou may be able to stave off the worst ravages of the food shortages. Issoufou won a widely-commended election a year ago, replacing the military junta which had overthrown previous president, Mamadou Tandja, in 2009.

Tandja’s attitude to the chronic food problems of his country had long been a cause for concern amongst aid agencies. In 2005, he made headlines by declaring that there was no hunger in Niger. His words were juxtaposed in newspapers around the world with pictures of emaciated babies suffering from that year’s food shortages.

“The new government is showing leadership” says WFP’s Denise Brown. “They were the first to speak about this crisis, and on a day-to-day basis we’re seeing a good level of co-operation.”

At the heart of the government’s efforts is the new initiative aimed at improving Niger’s agricultural potential through better management of water resources and improved farming techniques. It is called Les Trois Ns, Nigeriens Nourissent les Nigeriens (The Three N’s - Nigeriens Feed Nigeriens).

“We need to go beyond emergency interventions, with humanitarian agencies having to come in and give out food” says Amadou Diallo, the High Commissioner for the Three N’s Initiative. “We want to tackle the root causes of hunger. Through irrigation and land reclamation, we will increase our agricultural output.”

Lessons for Horn of Africa

Stung by criticisms that the interventions to prevent hunger in the Horn of Africa in 2011 came much too late, international aid agencies want to respond early in Niger and the wider Sahel. WFP initiatives implementing NGO partners have already been launched. These include ‘cash for work’ and ‘food for work’ schemes where people receive cash or food for working to improve land or tend crops.

Action Against Hunger in Keita have a number of ‘market garden’ projects which use deep well water to increase the variety and quality of vegetables available on the local market (as in the photo below).

However the situation is precariously balanced. When the head of the UNDP Helen Clark visited Niger in mid-February, she highlighted the fact that out of a global appeal for $750 million to help communities across the Sahel, only 10% had been pledged so far.

“We need to mobilise quickly” says Rheal Drisdelle, head of Plan International in Niger. “Children are already being taken out of school. Women are working in the fields and find it hard to get help for their hungry children. The smallest shock could wreck a very finely balanced situation.”

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