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April 05, 2010

Hunger Closing Schools in Niger

Rising hunger in Niger is closing schools in some southern districts because families are leaving home in search of food.

Niger's military government says primary schools in the Takieta district of the southern Zinder region are now nearly empty as families abandon the area and head toward the capital in search of food.

Zinder is one of the areas hardest hit by poor rains in a country where more than half the families are food insecure.  Children already facing hunger now no longer go to school.

"We have children in a bad situation living in bad conditions and lacking everything, meaning health care and food and attention and now education," said Anne Boher, who works for the U.N. children's fund in Niger. "Food insecurity at the moment is affecting one person out of two here in Niger.  Twenty percent of the population are children under five, so you can imagine the impact on children."

UNICEF says at least 200,000 children in Niger face severe acute malnutrition that  requires hospital treatment.  The government says more than 45,000 cases were recorded by the middle of last month.  That is double last year's figure.

Across the Sahel, relief officials say 10 million people could be affected by food shortages.  The United Nations says more than 850,000 children are at risk of severe malnutrition, mostly in Niger and Chad.

The United Nations will launch its Humanitarian Action Plan for Niger Wednesday in Geneva.

Boher says delays in fully funding humanitarian relief operations in Niger could see even greater movements of people looking for food.

"The impact on children will be terrifying if we can not provide to these people the adequate food, but also treatment and health care," she said.

The United Nations says poor farmers in Niger, Chad, and northeastern Mali will likely need food assistance through the early harvests in August.