afrol News, 9 July - It is frustrating. Aid agencies warned of food shortages in Niger already in January. Government issued an international famine warning in March and does its best to feed hungry citizens. But funding for international food aid still is minimal.
The regional drought has been known for over half a year, and it soon became clear that it would lead to serious food shortages in impoverished Niger, but also in Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.
Ten million people by now go undernourished in the Sahel region. Out of these, seven million live in Niger, representing half of the nation's total population.
And the crisis is deepening, despite the limited aid distributed in Niger. Children and women are now particularly vulnerable. An estimated 1.5 million children under five years in Niger alone suffer from malnutrition. Almost half a million of them risk dying soon if not offered quick treatment, according to humanitarian aid organisations in Niger.
The crisis however will continue to deepen even more, as aid provisions come too late and are too small. The already malnourished children are bound to get permanent damages to their physical development, and entire rural societies are left with no other choice than killing their herds and eating their seed grains, thus producing a long-term structural crisis.
According to Marte Gerhardsen from the humanitarian group CARE, the late response to the crisis makes the lasting effects even harder to overcome and the aid work more expensive and complicated. It generally costs seven times more to provide emergency aid at the peak of a crisis than providing aid prior to a crisis, Ms Gerhardsen says, adding that early aid also helps avoid much human suffering.
Why has Niger again been let down while a famine is hitting the country?
This time, it is certainly not the fault of Niger's government. The ruling military junta, which works hard to transform the country into a functioning democracy, responded quickly to the crisis, seeking international aid, setting up its own response commission and urging the Nigerien press to report about the food crisis.
Indeed, tackling the food crisis is highest on the junta's agenda, next to the democratic transition programme. The national response commission is travelling across the country to coordinate aid efforts, select data and make sure the most needed are first in line when the limited aid resources are handed out.
At its latest visit in Tanout, the commission was told that out of the 1 million people living in the Zinder region, a total of 498,077 persons had by now been registered as in need of food aid. Already, 60 famine deaths had been registered by provincial authorities this year.
Prefect Amadou Dioffo Seybou told the commission that developments were "worrying". He appreciated the efforts to distribute food and provide medical assistance by government and aid organisations, but still the situation was deteriorating for people and livestock. Food prices were still steeply rising, he said.
Also Mr Seybou noted the root caused of the current famine, which never had been properly addressed. The collapse in agricultural output was "closely linked to the drought, poor soils and overpopulation of the region," he said, but Tanout "for over twenty years has experienced a chronic situation of food deficit," he added.
The prefect, together with the national commission, appealed for more international aid, but also for the many organisations present in Niger to better coordinate their work with government. Too many "parallel interventions" were running, the commission noted.
But also aid organisations are frustrated, mainly due to the lack of funds and resources to help the many needy. The World Food Programme (WFP), channelling the largest part of emergency aid to Niger, this week finally was able to announce it would double the size of its operation in Niger, soon to reach 4.3 million people.
To ramp up operations on this scale, WFP however estimates it will need an extra US$ 100 million. Donations to fund this very urgent upscale are slower than normal to materialise.
CARE's Ms Gerhardsen comments that even this unfunded up-scaling is too little and too late. There are 7.1 million, not 4.3 million people facing hunger in Niger, charities Oxfam, Save the Children and Tearfund agree. Ten organisations now join forces to call for "a surge" of donations from governments, companies and private persons to finally address the Niger famine.
The ten charities also urged the UN to take this disaster more seriously by appointing a special representative for the crisis, so as to help speed up massive aid efforts across several countries.
A UN representative could assist the crisis-struck states of the Sahel region coordinate relief works, negotiate with donor nations and seek to formulate a more long-sighted development programme to prevent a similar disaster to hit Niger and its neighbours in a few years, they argued. Maybe that is what it takes?
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