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Famine Experts Say Niger Faces Another Difficult Year

Last year, widespread food shortages hit Niger, forcing a massive relief effort to save millions of people at risk of malnutrition. Now, nearly one year later, the lean period is approaching yet again, and many see another looming crisis.

It was not until the appearance of widespread media coverage of food shortages with scenes of starving children like those at the Maradis Doctors Without Borders feeding center that help began to arrive in Niger last year.

The landlocked country ranked the poorest in the world last year on the U.N. Human Development Index.

Drought and locust infestations caused a 10-percent drop in food output in 2005. And in a country where about 40-percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, that shortfall proved disastrous.

At the height of the crisis, three-million people were at risk of starvation.

Abdoulaye Hima, the local chief in the village of Gogueize in western Niger, says even with the eventual emergency intervention by the government and donor countries, little aid arrived.

"In the end, we received five sacks of millet and corn," he said. "And that was not free. Prices were lowered," he says, "but we still had to pay 10,000 francs, about $20 per sack. For a village like ours, with 115 families, it just was not enough."

Hima, like most in Niger, is used to famine. Shortages are an annual problem here. But this year, he is particularly worried.

"Last year was hard," he said. "Prices for millet went up. No one had any money. This year, with bird flu," he says, "we have not been able to sell our chickens to make any extra money. It could be even worse this year."

Many experts and aid workers are already seeing the follow-on effects of last year's crisis.

In order to survive, many families used credit to buy essential cereals to make it through the worst months. But that means much of this year's improved harvest went straight to creditors. And according to Niger's government, around one-point-eight million people are again at risk.

UNICEF's representative in Niger, Aboudou Adjibade says the situation is indicative of the structural problems, which keep the country from being able to feed its people.

"Where the epicenter of malnutrition resides is exactly where the food production is the best in this country," he said. "The granary of Niger is in Maradi region. It is in Maradi region at that time where the rate of malnutrition was the highest."

Adjibade says there was enough food last year, but it was sold at too high a price.

Many in Niger blame grain speculators from neighboring Nigeria, who came early in the harvest and bought up large stocks, only to sell them back to the same villagers when the crisis worsened and prices went up.

Some say that same phenomenon is occurring this year.

But even if there is a crisis, humanitarian organizations say they are better prepared. Emergency aid that in 2005 had to be airlifted into the country at great expense is already stocked in warehouses throughout the country.

But experts say, in many ways, Niger is still coming up short. The national food security mechanism, a joint operation between the government and donor countries, has still received only about 60-percent funding for its 2006 budget.

Though more funding has been pledged, most of it will not arrive in time to help Niger through the lean period.

It is a situation that that is a constant source of frustration for Adjibade.

"Its always cheaper to invest in prevention," said Abjibade. "The case we were mentioning last year was so evident. When we were asking for $2 million at the beginning to prevent, and we did not get enough, at the end, the international donors paid $19 million to do the same thing."

Back in Gogueize, village chief Hima knows nothing of the international funding problems. But he is painfully aware of what his village will need if everyone is to survive the coming months.

"We just want real help," said Hima. "If the government could bring food in, we are not even asking to get it for free. If they could just lower the prices a little, we will buy it."