World Wakes Up to Famine in Niger

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 26, 2005 (ENS) - At last, funds are coming in after a long period of neglected warnings about starvation in the West African country of Niger, say senior United Nations relief officials.

“Over the last few days, the world has finally woken up, but it took graphic images of dying children for this to happen,” Under-Secretary-General Jan Egeland told a news briefing in Geneva on Friday. “More money had been received over the last 10 days than over the last 10 months.”

Egeland said $25 million is either in hand or pledged, but that figure is not nearly enough to cope with the crisis, and the UN will again appeal for more funding.

"This is not much money; in fact it is only 20 minutes of the world’s military spending," said Egeland, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.

Egeland told reporters the UN needs a central emergency fund. OCHA has $50,000 for rapid response to emergencies, but only for loans, not for grants. Egeland says a $500,000 fund that could rapidly launch emergency relief campaigns as soon as warning signs emerge would make UN responses more predictable.


Children in Niger are dying of starvation, but donors are not responding with enough funds to feed them. (Photo courtesy World Food Programme)
Relief officials estimate there are at least 800,000 malnourished children of Niger and 2.5 million people living on less than one meal a day. The food crisis was brought on by last year's drought, this year's late rains, and swarms of locusts that have eaten every scrap of vegetation.

Egeland said one of his most difficult missions is to attract the world's attention to forgotten emergencies. For each crisis that receives funding and profiling, he said, there are a dozen neglected situations, some of which turn into full-blown catastrophes, as in Niger.

Although "desperately short" of funds, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has just announced plans to almost triple the number of people it feeds in Niger.

The program aims to help 1.2 million people suffering food shortages caused by last year's low rainfall and the worst locust invasion in 15 years, which has devastated crops and grazing land.

WFP’s initial response has been hampered by late funding and difficulties buying food within the region. Supplies are now being sourced at ports in West Africa and on other international markets, the agency said.

Conditions for Niger residents have been deteriorating rapidly, the WFP says, and extreme food insecurity is now widespread in affected areas.

This deterioration is apparent in high malnutrition indicators, worsening terms of trade and poor livestock conditions.

With several nongovernmental organizations now arriving in Niger to start up specialized nutritional programmes, WFP will target free food to mothers accompanying malnourished children to these centers.

Other vulnerable households will also receive free food supplies through targeted general food distributions already established by the government of Niger and NGOs.

Most immediately at risk are young children, with feeding centers run by Medecins sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, reporting admission rates nearly three times those during the same period last year.


Children cry at Keita feeding center, northeast of Niger’s capital, Niamey. These children are severely malnourished and will be staying at the clinic as inpatients for the duration of their treatment. (Photo by Marcus Prior courtesy WFP)
Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) said Monday that bad harvests and exhausted food reserves were part of the problem, "but more than anything else an incredible rise in the price of millet," has brought about a serious nutritional crisis.

The local diet is based on balls made of millet paste. MSF says this diet is neither rich nor varied enough, is deficient in vitamins and so weakens people, brings disease and accelerates the loss of weight. When these rations ran out, families are reduced to boiling leaves into a stew. MSF says that this mixture, particularly when prepared with unsafe water, can cause diarrhea in children, who then risk losing more weight and becoming severely malnourished.

In the Maradi nutritional center, MSF deals with severely malnourished children. Some, just two years old, scarcely weigh three kilos (6.6 pounds), less than the weight of a child at birth in Europe.

"Among the children who are admitted in the nutritional centre, it's often hard to tell if they fell sick because they were malnourished and weak or if the malnutrition is the consequence of their sickness," said Vanessa, chief doctor at the Maradi intensive care unit.

Even in a good year, malnutrition rates among young children in Niger 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.

The aid organization Oxfam is implementing a de-stocking program that is aimed at reaching 28,000 people in Niger. Animals are bought by Oxfam for a fair price and then slaughtered to reduce the numbers of weak animals that can no longer be sold on the market.


Cattle in Niger are thin and weak this year. (Photo by Marcus Prior courtesy WFP)
Emergency de-stocking provides an immediate income for families, Oxfam says, and reduces the number of animals on the market so that prices rise, and the chance of survival for the remaining herd is increased.

Under the group's voucher for work program, targeted for 130,000 people in Niger, Oxfam negotiates a catalogue of items available from selected traders or existing cereal banks at lower than average prices.

The poorest 20 percent of communities and households receive vouchers which they can exchange for these goods.

For their vouchers, recipients can work at the removal of animal carcasses, drying of meat from de-stocking and culling, cutting back thorny bushes, and reforestation.

Oxfam estimates that about 10-20 percent of the population will be too weak to work or will be single mothers who do not have the time available to work. These individuals will benefit from free voucher distribution.

Oxfam estimates that more than four million people are facing starvation across the Sahel region of West Africa, with the worst conditions experienced in Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

The World Food Programme agrees, saying the critical conditions in Niger are echoed to varying degrees across the region.

Regardless of this year's drought and locust invasions, chronic poverty is widespread in West Africa, the scene of some bitter conflicts where many countries are at the very bottom of the Human Development Index.

WFP said Monday it "urgently needs funds if it is to prevent millions of people across the region from going hungry in the months to come."

The problems affecting the region can be broken down into three categories:

The locust infestations are not yet conquered the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said Thursday. Intensive and wide-ranging locust monitoring and control operations are needed over the next months in frontline countries in the Sahel such as Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Sudan, the agency said. locusts
Locusts have destroyed crops across West Africa since 2003. (Photo courtesy FAO)
"The locust emergency is not yet over because favorable rains in breeding areas in the Sahel could allow scattered populations to breed successfully, triggering new outbreaks in some countries," said FAO Director-General Dr. Jacques Diouf, addressing donor representatives at a meeting in Rome.

Since the start of the locust crisis in October 2003, donor countries have provided $74 million, to which FAO added $6 million from its own resources.

FAO locust experts are now on site in four of the frontline countries in the Sahel, and helicopters will be used in Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger for monitoring the situation.

Spray aircraft will be on standby if the locust situation worsens. Pesticide stocks are more than adequate. Algeria has provided survey teams and helicopters to Mali and Niger.

Dr. Diouf said, "Barring any unexpected developments, the outlook for returning to a normal locust situation by the end of the year is good."