Fresh conflict has arisen between Tuareg rebel groups and the Malian army since mid-January. Groups of militant Tuareg fighters want to create an independent state across the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and have been using weapons released from the Libya conflict in a fresh campaign, causing many villagers to flee their homes.
An estimated 7,000 Malians have taken refuge in western areas of Niger. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is just one agency that has expressed its concern over the extra strain placed on communities in Niger, particularly around the Tiallabéri region. Villagers here have been hit hard by the drought of 2011 and with the likelihood of ongoing poor harvests this year, locals are facing increasing food insecurity. Niger’s government has already asked for assistance from the international community, predicting nearly half its population will face food shortages in 2012. In response to the refugee situation, some agencies have sent emergency supplies to western Niger, an ICRC spokesperson told the news agency IRIN, but there would only be enough “to meet immediate needs”.
With the effects of climate change making for unpredictable harvests and a growing population, Niger has frequently faced food shortages. However, the new government has proved much quicker to sound warnings when severe droughts loom. Foreign workers are also noticing a change in culture surrounding issues of family-planning. In a country where the population has grown from 2 to 15 million over the last five decades, religious leaders are now openly addressing the topic of family planning as a way to ensure a healthier population, which can be sustained by Niger’s fragile resources.
In a recent blog article for IRIN, a humanitarian-aid commissioner visiting the country after a space of two years, expressed her surprise at finding local Imams in favour of gaps between children as both healthier for mothers and offspring, and in keeping with the Koran. The commissioner also found an openness about discussing Niger’s annual 3.3% population growth at government level. With the issue on the country’s political agenda, local authorities are raising family planning discussions at community levels and the topic is no longer taboo. In her article, the commissioner admits that making links between food shortages and population growth is a sensitive and complex subject, especially where poor families rely on having many children to help farm land. However, with another food crisis looming across the Sahel region, it is an important time to raise the issue and explore how countries with fragile environments can best look after their populations.