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Action needed to avoid a food crisis in Niger

In the past, food crises in Niger have escalated to a point where the situation has become a desperate emergency.

However, the new government of Niger seems keen to avoid this for the future. The government flagged up the need for food supplies as early as the autumn last year. After the poor harvests of 2011, the president of Niger appealed to the international community for help in supporting this vast country on the edge of the Sahara. Approximately 1 million people (from a population of around 16 million) are in need of food supplies, with 750,000 classified as “severely food insecure”.

According to the director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Niger, the late arrival of rains has caused a “slow onset emergency”. Anticipating a looming problem with food stocks among pastoralists and farmers, the government drew up a response plan in October along with international agencies such as the WFP. Food in some areas could run out as early as March this year and also in certain regions of other countries – such as Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Agencies are calling on the international community to respond promptly and invest in the Sahel region now, so as to avoid the kind of hunger which has struck eastern Africa.

The UN children’s fund (UNICEF) has launched an appeal for 65.7 million dollars to fund the distribution of emergency supplies. UNICEF says that without aid, nearly 34,000 young children will be at risk of starvation in Niger. In the meantime, the WFP has been extending programmes which provide added nutrition for infants and pregnant or nursing mothers, reaching around half a million vulnerable people every month. The organisation is also providing more food-for-work projects in Niger. These offer a small daily sum of money for those who help in small-scale community projects, such as the building of irrigation systems. WFP expects to spend around 163 million dollars over the coming year in food assistance.

Food shortages in Niger have been exacerbated by a rising cost in staples and the return of many migrant workers from countries such as Libya. Around 90,000 people are thought to have returned back to the country according to estimates from the International Organisation for Migration. As well as leaving families without a regular income, the return of so many puts an extra strain on the country which is already struggling with high population growth.

Growing enough food to support its people is also becoming a more difficult task as climate change affects the Sahel region. According to a recent report from the UN Environment Programme – Livelihood Security: Climate Change, Migration and Conflict in the Sahel – populations in northern Niger are increasingly moving southwards as rainfall becomes more variable and grasses disappear. Many pastoralists can no longer find enough pasture, water or land to sustain their traditional ways of living and are migrating to towns in search of alternative livings. Projects are underway to improve water supplies and plant trees to help soil conservation. This has helped regenerate thousands of hectares in Niger. But in such a vast country, where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, much more needs to be done.

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