Al-Imdaad FoundationAL-IMDAAD FOUNDATION
26 May 2005

Dakar, 27 May 2005 (IRIN) - While Niger's food situation deteriorates by the day at the onset of the lean season, emergency funds requested to alleviate the plight of villagers forced to eat wild fruit and scavenge in ant-hills have failed to come, United Nations agency officials said this week.

Jan Egeland, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator described the food disaster unfolding in Niger this week as “the number one forgotten and neglected emergency in the world”. Of the 12 million inhabitants in Niger, 3.6 million are affected by the food security crisis. Of these, 2.5 million urgently need life-saving support, Egeland said in Geneva. Around one in five of the under-fives living in two southern districts of Niger is suffering from acute malnutrition, according to the preliminary results of a nutritional survey by the medical aid group Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF). The results from the Tahoua and Maradi districts, released by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) showed that almost 20 per cent of the toddlers were suffering from global acute malnutrition, which includes severe and moderate malnutrition. "The global malnutrition rate is alarming. We are worried about all the moderately malnourished children, who, if they do not get food, will face severe malnutrition," Johanne Sekkenes, MSF head of mission in Niger, told IRIN in a phone interview from the capital, Niamey. More than 5,000 children had been admitted to MSF feeding centres for the malnourished since the beginning of the year, compared to 2,200 at the same period last year. On the eve of the lean months, when stocks are dried up ahead of the next harvests, aid is the only solution. "Chances that the situation improves are almost non existent because the months of April to September are the most difficult for rural populations that have already exhausted their stocks of cereals," Gian Carlo Cirri, the WFP representative in Niger told IRIN from Niamey. "We are witnessing a deterioration in the situation," he added. "In more and more areas people are selling off their meagre possessions and cattle." But the looming crisis has failed up until now to capture donors' attention. "We asked for US $16.2 million last week for Niger. We still have zero commitments to this appeal. We urgently appeal for help for Niger," Egeland also said. WFP had requested US $3.5 million to urgently feed the population, but lacks a third of the amount, Cirri said. Last year, rain ended prematurely and swarms of locusts devoured 15 percent of Niger's average cereal production and almost 40 percent of the country's livestock fodder. The price of cereals has soared while the market price for undernourished cattle and other livestock has plummeted. With empty granaries, many villagers in Niger have resorted to scavenging wild plants to survive, such as “anza”, a very bitter fruit they only eat in times of severe shortage, Seydou Bakari, coordinator of the government's food crisis cell, told IRIN. Hungry villagers even had been "scavenging ant-hills in hopes of finding grains of cereal left over by the insects," he said. Egeland said 150,000 children would die if they did not get help soon. On the ground, relief workers are seriously worried. "The number of new cases admitted [at the feeding centres] is going up every week", Sekkenes told IRIN. She said MSF's three feeding centres and 21 outreach centres in the Maradi and Tahoua regions had, respectively, admitted 484 children against 350 the previous week, and 124 children against 66 the week before. The organisation, which employed about hundred people in its Maradi centre and seven outreach centres, had had to triple its personnel. The Niger government, in agreement with development partners, is selling basic foodstuffs at controlled prices in some of the country's worst hit areas, according to Bakari. A 100-kg bag of millet is sold for example at 10,000 CFA francs (US $20), much below the current market price, which can reach 25 000 CFA francs (US $50) in the most deprived areas. "But some households cannot even afford the subsidized price, and we are thinking about introducing a loan service," Bakari said. The government did not favour distributing food for free to avoid disrupting developmental processes, except to malnourished children and pregnant women, he added. The government’s food crisis cell has also decided to set up food-for-work activities in 300 sites, establish 660 cereal banks and 150 banks for cattle, and distribute seeds for free in areas where no seed is left. "The needs are huge, we have no money left, we need to reconstitute the national food security stock, we don’t know how the 2005 agricultural campaign will look, and we don’t know whether there will be a locust infestation," Bakari said. He said there had been early rainfall late April, and that 25 per cent of destitute farmers had planted seeds, but as it had not rained since, the seeds risked being lost. Locust swarms moreover had recently been observed. In its 25 May locust situation update, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said local populations of adults had recently laid eggs in the Tanout region in central Niger, where there had been rainfall. These had started to hatch and hoppers were forming small bands. (Courtesy of IRIN)