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Niger Facing Growing Food Crisis

NIAMEY, Aug 17 2010 (IPS) - In April, the United Nations World Food Programme estimated it would need 190 million dollars to respond to a food crisis threatening more than 7 million people in Niger. By July, the WFP had revised the amount needed upwards to $371 million: a month later, the U.N. agency has been forced to scale back aid for lack of funds.

Malnutrition check-up in Moghem health centre, in Niger's central region of Tahoua. Credit:  Catherine-Lune Grayson/IRIN

Malnutrition check-up in Moghem health centre, in Niger's central region of Tahoua. Credit: Catherine-Lune Grayson/IRIN

Niger’s transitional government made a call for help to avert a famine affecting nearly half of the country’s 15 million people in April, citing a poor 2009 harvest, which left the country with a grain shortfall of more than 400,000 tonnes.

“Every week, we record more than 40 cases of acute malnutrition in our clinic,” Balkissa Issa, a nurse in the eastern region of Zinder told IPS.

Speaking to journalists, Mohamed Béavogui, director of the West and Central Africa division of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, confirmed the gravity of the crisis. “The situation for children is critical in Niger, but the response has been put in place to support women and children who are considered the most vulnerable by UNICEF and NGOs.”

He said the emergency aid by the government, its institutional partners and international NGOs took several forms, including providing subsidised grain, establishing work for food programmes, and distribution of food aid to the worst affected.

Building food security in the long-term

To prevent this type of crisis, the government created a High Authority on Food Security in May 2010.

"Only a mastery of water allowing the practice of irrigated agriculture, with the necessary training, can guarantee food self-sufficiency," says Abdouramane Nomao, a rural sociolgist based in Niamey.

This concept is applied in the Project for the Promotion of Local Initiatives for Development in Aguie, in the central part of the country, financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

"We are reinforcing the capacity of smallholder farmers to conceive and put into place initiatives and technical, economic and social innovations to reduce poverty and vulnerability, particularly with regards to the improvement of food and nutritional security," project director Chaïbou Guéro told IPS.

Reached by phone by IPS, Adamou Sahirou, a farmer in the Aguie area, confirmed that he has improved his harvest, going from harvesting six to around 10 sacks of 100 kilos, thanks to the improved seed that he has learned to produce himself.

According to Guéro, the introduction of improved seed and technical innovations has allowed increased harvests of the principal crops from 25-35 percent.

Niger's Rural Development Strategy, according to IFAD regional director Mohamed Béavogui, is organised around three essential axes: to create conditions for economic opportunities and sustainable growth in the countryside; to improve food security and sustainable management of natural resources to secure a standard of living for rural people; and to reinforce the capacity of public institutions and rural organisations to improve management of the rural sector.

IPS spoke to Moustapha Kadi, a member of the ad hoc national committee coordinating activities for Niger’s 2010 Assistance Plan, about the relief efforts in late July.

“The cost of a subsidised sack of 100 kilogrammes of millet, maize or rice is 13,000 francs CFA (around $26), compared to over 20,000 FCFA ($40) in the open market. We have already supplied more than 60,000 tonnes of grain to the region on these terms,” he said.

“In conjunction with the World Food Programme, we also distributed around 53,000 tonnes for free in June and July 2010.”

A similar operation to distribute 30,000 tonnes was planned for August, including the distribution of basic rations to children between six and 23 months throughout the country, he said.

But due to a massive shortfall in donor funds, the WFP has been forced to adopt a scaled back plan for August.

WFP aid will now only be distributed to families with children under the age of two, who will receive 50 kilogrammes of grain, less than is necessary for families of seven or more, according to information released by Oxfam, which distributes food for the WFP.

“This is an appalling situation,” Oxfam Deputy Regional Director in West Africa Raphael Sindaye said. “We have known about this crisis for months and yet more than a million people in Niger will continue to starve over the coming weeks and perhaps months.”

Through Oxfam alerted the international community to an impending regional famine as early as November of last year, Robert Bailey, Region Campaigns and Policy Manager in West Africa for Oxfam, said there was a sluggish response from donor nations.

“International systems didn’t invest enough in the response,” Bailey said. “[Donors] didn’t step up until July, which is too slow. The money is just not available.”

Under the new plan, about 60 percent of the affected population will be left to rely on aid from the Nigerien government, which Bailey said does not have the capacity to meet their needs.

“There are very little government resources available,” Bailey said. “The logistic pipelines are just not there.”

With the 2010 harvest still two months off, Niger is now at the peak of its food crisis, but Bailey said the WFP plans to double food rations in September in response to this month’s shortfall.

Additionally, Oxfam will administer work programs and other initiatives in the coming months to re-establish communities that were affected by the crisis, Bailey said.

“When a community goes through a food crisis, they come out vulnerable,” Bailey said. “We’re moving out a short-term view and focusing on the medium and long-term view.

*Chris Stein in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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