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Children suffer most as Niger slowly starves

About 80 per cent of people in Niger − nearly 12 million people, are now have as little as 10 days' food left.  There are fears that many will starve without urgent aid.

Last year, unusually heavy rains ruined crops and this year's harvest. The lack of basic staple foods such as maize, millet and sorghum has affected large parts of West Africa's Sahel desert region including neighbouring Chad and northern Nigeria.

But Niger is the country worst hit, and children are bearing the brunt of the suffering. Seventeen per cent of children are already malnourished, well above the 15 per cent threshold for an emergency.

As many as 400,000 children in Niger are facing starvation according to estimates by the charity, Save the Children.

Aid agencies have been keeping tabs on food levels in the western African country since 2005, when drought triggered the last food crisis and locusts wiped out food supplies from the year before.

But the level of today's food crisis, especially the amount of children it has left malnourished, has shocked many seasoned aid workers.

"These are very high levels of child malnutrition, the situation is bad," said Gianluca Ferrera, deputy director for the United Nations world food programme in Niger. "The loss in harvest last year was worse than expected, and the lean season started earlier than anticipated for a larger share of the population,” she told the Guardian newspaper.

"In some areas, there is a 50 per cent malnutrition rate for children under two. Many of these children will not survive."

And what is most frustrating about this year’s worsening food shortage in Niger is the fact that there is actually plenty of food in the markets. The problem is that the prices are so high, it is out of reach for most families. Food insecurity has been blamed for price increases of up to 300 per cent for some basic foods, including rice and cereals.

"There is food in the markets but the purchasing power of the people is very weak," said Mahamadou Danda, Niger's prime minister. "Without assistance, the people cannot afford to buy it."

But aid organisations say they need more than £63m to meet the urgent food needs of hundreds of thousands in Niger. "It has been very difficult to raise enough funds," said Ferrera. "There is a lot of donor fatigue and many countries are suffering austerity measures. Funding contributions are coming in slowly, but the window for buying food is now."

Hayley attribution




For more information and the option to donate to the Emergency Relief Programme SOS Children is running in Niger , see Emergency Famine Relief Niger 2010.