Assessing the situation in Niger – part 1

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Heading to Niger

Three weeks ago I arrived in Dakar to support Oxfam’s lobby, media and campaigns work around the severe food crisis currently hitting the Sahel belt of West Africa. Across several countries including Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria, as many as ten million women, men and children are going hungry, or suffering from ‘food insecurity’ as the experts term it, with many hundreds of thousands already facing severe and ‘moderate’ malnutrition.

This week we flew from Dakar to Niger to see what is really happening in some of the worst affected areas of the hardest hit country. More than 7 million people – over half the population of Niger – are struggling to get enough to eat.

We know some aid, including from Oxfam, has been getting through in recent weeks and months. But we also know the international aid effort has been too slow – funds from donors have been committed late, and aid on the ground isn’t coming through fast enough. As the people here face their toughest 3 months until harvest time in October, there’s a desperate need for international political engagement to ramp up the speed and the scale of the response.

In Niger’s capital, Niamey, a gentle-seeming city of sandy-mud-colored low houses, with a population of around 800,000 people, there are few immediate signs of the food crisis – there are small food stalls along many of the tree-lined, dusty streets, and the “petit marché” (small market) is crammed with stalls selling food and other items. But even in the capital, many are too poor to pay for enough food, and the picture in the countryside is much worse, as we soon see for ourselves.

Hunger in the countryside

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Two days ago, we drove just two hours from Niamey, along a rough potholed dirt-track through the semi-arid, mostly flat and desolate landscape. We stop briefly in the main town in the area, Ouallam, and talk to a serious but welcoming official there who explains that over 200 of the roughly 300 villages in this area are facing severe food shortages. Because of the drought, thousands of animals have died or are too thin to be sold for a decent price, or even to provide a good meal for the herders – “truly horrible,” says the official.

It’s as bad, our host tells us, as the deep crisis of 2005 – worse in some ways, he says, as people have less money this year than back then; better in other ways as speculators have not managed to drive prices so high. And importantly, this time around the new Nigerien government has recognized the crisis and invited donors and aid organizations like Oxfam to support them in tackling the crisis. And some aid has arrived – but much more will be needed in the coming months.

Rains bring relief and new problems

Driving on to the nearby village of Tondi Kiwindi, we find a small muddy river flooding across the road into the village. Our driver wades across to check our vehicle won’t get stuck, and we make it across. It’s a small, quiet village of mud-brick rectangular houses, quiet in the midday heat, a few locals looking with mild curiosity from a distance. The local village leader welcomes us and talks about the difficulties there. He talks about how many animals have died, about how little food villagers have, about the difficulties of surviving the next three months until the harvest.

He also thanks us for the work we’ve done with a local partner to buy their sick and thin animals at better prices than they can get in the markets, to provide animal feed and other support such as “cash for work”, which women especially have taken advantage of as many of the men have migrated away to towns to look for work (until the rains start, when they will return to work in the fields too).

The village leader explains that once it rains a few more times, the small flood we crossed to get into the village will rise and there will be no access to the village. He explains that this is his priority and asks if we can help. It’s a story across a lot of the region – rains are desperately needed to ensure a good harvest this year, but until October when the crops are ripe, rains can have a negative impact, blocking access and making delivery of aid much harder or impossible. And the rains lower the temperature a little, which is often ironically a deathblow for thousands of the already pitifully weakened animals.

Read the second part: Bitter peas – the only food left in the village of Ko Kaina

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More information: West Africa Food Crisis