WFP warned today that unless the international community renewed its commitment to deal with the consequences of this year’s food crisis in Niger -- including prevailing high levels of malnutrition among children -- the country faces a second successive year of extreme suffering and hardship.
“It will take only the slightest adversity to push families over the edge again,” said WFP Niger Country Director, Gian Carlo Cirri.
“Many people have used every available means to get them through this year and the harvests will bring only a brief respite. The international community must renew its efforts to help them through what remains a very difficult time.”
A recently completed food security assessment by WFP across the worst affected areas in Niger reveals a worrying picture of poverty, debt and widespread food insecurity.
Over 1.2 million people are estimated to have cereal stocks sufficient for only three months, while a further two million have stocks that will last a maximum of five months. Nearly two million more face a precarious year struggling to maintain what are already borderline livelihoods.
Even if rains are sufficient, locusts stay away, harvests are good and food prices remain stable next year, many Nigeriens have already stretched their ability to deal with difficult times to the limit. Their survival strategies will be less reliable and less sustainable in 2006.
In the meantime, the current emphasis is on the malnutrition crisis that continues to affect mainly children. WFP is providing food to supplementary and therapeutic feeding centres as part of an overall effort to feed two million of the most vulnerable people.
In coordination with UNICEF and MSF, about 200,000 children have been treated and fed in about 700 centres across the affected regions of Niger this year, with food rations also provided for their families.
Break in food supplies
Niger’s biggest problem is one of poverty – when survival strategies are exhausted ... disaster looms
Gian Carlo Cirri, WFP Country Director
WFP still requires US$20.3 million to fund its current emergency operation until March next year, with US$8.3 million needed immediately. A break in food supplies looms as early as December if donations are not forthcoming.
The recent assessment also showed that agricultural production was not as healthy as it might have been because many men were forced to leave villages in search of work this year.
While farmers in Niger often do not harvest enough food for an entire year, traditional methods of making up the balance have been enormously eroded.
Many have sold most of their livestock to access capital or because they could not feed them. They rely heavily on daily paid labour or cash remittances from relatives and are deeply in debt.
Poor food consumption
In many instances, poor food consumption with little variety in diet is likely to increase malnutrition among the most vulnerable, especially young children.
Cereal prices in Niger’s markets have stabilized to a significant degree since the return of the harvest, allowing most people some relief from the worst effects of this year’s food shortages.
However, the market cost of millet and sorghum remains slightly above the five-year average, prompting concerns that key staples will again be priced beyond the reach of many poor households when their stocks run out.
“If people can’t afford to buy the food they need again next year it is very possible that they will face a similar situation to this year. Niger’s biggest problem is one of poverty – when survival strategies are exhausted and all purchasing power is lost, disaster looms,” said Cirri.
Information gathered from a separate assessment mission conducted with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Government of Niger are being analyzed and will be used to tailor operations appropriately in 2006.
WFP completed general food aid distributions in early October, following the arrival of the harvest. A total of nearly three million people have received food, but pressing needs remain.
In order to meet the most immediate requirements, WFP has extended its current emergency operation until the end of March next year.
More than a quick fix
“Niger has sadly slipped down the international agenda, which could have disastrous consequences for those who are still suffering from the effects of this year’s crisis.
But Niger needs more than a quick fix – it needs sustained and targeted support to help it out of its crushing poverty once and for all,” Cirri said.