afrol News, 12 July - More than 1 million people in Niger are now in need of emergency food aid, representing one tenth of the poor Sahelian country's total population. Children are most vulnerable. Conditions in Niger are "particularly critical this year" following a poor rainy season and devastation to crops and grazing land caused by the worst locust invasion in 15 years, according to humanitarian agencies.
The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) today announced plans to almost triple the number of people being fed through its Niger emergency operation to over a million, as the annual "hunger season" takes a firm and distressing grip on one of the world's poorest countries.
- Most immediately at risk are young children, WFP says in a statement released today. Feeding centres run by the Paris-based organisation Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) are reporting admission rates nearly three times those during the same period last year. Recent nutritional surveys had pointed to severe acute malnutrition rates of between 2.4 and 2.9 percent amongst children under five years old. In the worst hit areas rates for severe acute malnutrition were as high as six percent.
Niger is entirely located in the Sahelian and Saharan part of West Africa, thus suffering from periodic droughts. While harvests in many parts of the country at first seemed positive last year, a severe locust invasion stripped farmers out of their entire crop. Since that, rains have been erratic, hindering a quick recovery. An estimated 80 percent of the population is rural, mostly depending directly on land resources.
The looming food crisis in Niger was discovered by surprised MSF workers early this year, noting a sudden rush of undernourished children to their rural health centres. A limited food aid programme was introduced shortly thereafter and several humanitarian organisations have arrived in Niger to start up specialised nutritional programmes.
The depth of the food crisis is however only being understood now, as the presence of humanitarian workers in Niger has increased. "Children are dying and adults are going hungry," said WFP Niger Country Director, Gian Carlo Cirri, who has been appealing for a rapid response to Niger's worsening crisis. "We have said this before and we are saying it again - Niger needs help today, not tomorrow," Mr Cirri added.
WFP's initial response had been "severely hampered" by late funding and difficulties buying food within the region, the UN agency said. Supplies now however were being sourced at ports in West Africa and on other international markets. WFP plans to target free food to mothers accompanying malnourished children to its centres. Other vulnerable households are also to receive free food supplies through targeted general food distributions, already established by the government of Niger.
Following widespread coverage of Niger in the international media, the bulk of WFP's US$ 4.2 million appeal for 465,000 people was received in the last six weeks. However, WFP now requires an additional US$ 12 million to cover the rapidly rising costs of the operation, which now aims to feed nearly 1.2 million people.
Niger however faces structural food problems that will not be resolved by the current operation. Even in a good year, malnutrition rates amongst young Nigerien children are extremely high. Some 82 percent of the population rely on subsistence farming and cattle rearing while only 15 percent of the land is suitable for arable farming. There is little irrigation, leaving most farmers at the mercy of the rains.
Niger is the world's second poorest country after Sierra Leone and despite targeted government efforts to improve the situation, people seem to "live as if cursed by poverty," as Mr Cirri puts it. The WFP representative holds that the international community cannot allow this to continue.
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