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January 30, 2012

Food Crisis Threatens Millions in Niger

by Ricci Shryock

Erratic rainfall and attacks from insects have contributed to the worsening situation

More than three million people in Niger are at risk of severe food shortages in what could be a looming humanitarian crisis, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies West Africa branch.

Per Becker, the Regional Disaster Risk Management Coordinator for the Red Cross’ Dakar office, said the situation is expected to get worse. “The numbers of people that we are expecting being malnourished is just increasing all the time," he said. "We are now seeing over three million people facing hunger and food insecurity for this lean period. The lean period is mainly between April and August, but this year it comes early because of the failed harvests they’ve had.”

Erratic rainfall and attacks from insects have contributed to the worsening situation, Becker added. Socio-economic factors such as rising costs of food also play a big role in malnutrition. “Even if you have sufficient food production in the country, some families cannot afford it when the food prices increase 25-30 percent.”

Catholic Relief Services Director of Emergency Operations, Bill Canny, was recently in the Niger towns of Tolkobey and Sangare, where he visited with families to get their feedback on the situation. He recalled the story of one father:

“He was probably about 45 years old, and he was in the village of Tolkobey, and he said that this year his family with their small plots was able to harvest nothing," said Canny. "What he does, every year, even when they do harvest, is go to Nigeria, where he works as a dock worker. Every year, last year particularly, he was able to send back a sack of millet a month. Because of the insecurity in the region, in Nigeria, he couldn’t go to Northern Nigeria - now, he’s unable to leave and use that as a fall back for his family."

Canny added that next harvest season hopefully cash-for-work and seed distributions can help people get back on their feet, but in the immediate future short-term needs of many in Niger are pressing.

“In the short-term in order to try and keep them in place, we need to work with the government and other NGOs to get some subsidized foods into the areas,” said Becker.

The Red Cross added that besides Niger – Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and areas of Senegal are also at risk of a measure food crisis if measures are not taken.