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UN Calls for Urgent Action in Niger Food Crisis

The top U.N. aid official is calling for urgent action to deal with a growing food crisis in Niger that threatens more than half of the country's 14 million people.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes was in Niger this week to call attention to the deepening food crisis brought on by drought and poor harvests last year in the Eastern Sahel region.

Holmes said the situation is worse than the last Niger food crisis in 2005, but said the West African nation is better prepared to face it, in part due to better government cooperation.

Aid workers say severe food shortages could affect as many as eight million people in Niger in coming months.

Holmes visited Zinder province in southern Niger, one of the country's hardest hit areas, where families are beginning to abandon villages and head to the capital in search of food.

Holmes say the food situation in Niger is serious and many are hungry. He says many animals are hungry, growing weak and beginning to die. Malnutrition is on the rise and water is more scarce. He says schools are being abandoned and, in some areas, as many as 20 percent of students are missing. Many villages and many farmers, he says, will not have seeds for the next planting. And sadly, he says, the situation could only get worse, as it is still six months before the next harvest.

Holmes said the time to act is now and reiterated a call by the United Nations for an additional $130 million in emergency funding for 2010 to manage the crisis and head off catastrophe.

The food shortage is a result of irregular rainfall in 2009 that led to poor harvests and severe lacks of water and grazing land for animals.

Aid workers say poverty and lack of irrigation make Niger's farmers vulnerable to even slight climate changes, and malnutrition is a constant challenge.

Holmes says we must act quickly in the face of this food crisis, but we must also not forget that food shortages are a recurring problem in Niger. He says we must attack the larger structural problems that exist and invest more in agriculture, irrigation and rural infrastructure.

The U.N. World Food Program has doubled the number of people it plans to feed in Niger and now expects to feed more than 1.5 million people in next month's general food distribution.