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Unicef Responds to Food Crisis in Niger

26 July 2005

Children and women in Niger are bearing the brunt of this year's food security crisis.

The crisis was brought on by a combination of drought and locust infestation during the 2004 growing season. In many villages of the Maradi Region in southern Niger, the lack of food has sent children begging on the streets.

For the past two months, eleven-year-old Souleymane Mahamane has lived on Maradi’s city streets, sleeping at the bus station with only a thin piece of cardboard to protect him from the cold cement benches he lies on. He begs for his midday meal. In the evenings, he joins several other street children working for a woman who sells rice and sauce at the bus station. The boys serve the meals and wash the dishes. In exchange, they get to eat the leftover food scraped from customers’ plates. The woman often rewards each of the boys with 100 to 150 Communauté Financière Africaine francs ($0.20 to $0.30) for their evening’s work.

Souleymane had left his village, Malamawa, for the city as hunger pangs in his empty stomach became increasingly unbearable. “Sometimes we went for two weeks without preparing a meal,” he says. “I couldn't live like that,” the boy continues. “I was hungry all of the time. So one day, I started walking toward Maradi.” He didn’t know anybody in the city, but he felt that conditions had to be better than those back home.

In the village of Angoual Mata, not far from Souleymane's hometown, women are conspicuously absent. When asked where all the women have gone, a villager says they are out looking for leaves to feed their families.

Although rains began early this year and have fallen regularly - giving hope for a better agricultural season - relief will not come before the harvest in October. Villagers are just now entering into the critical period known as the lean season (April through September) - the months when food stocks are at their lowest and farmers need extra strength to plant and cultivate their crops.

UNICEF is providing US$222,000 (116 million francs CFA) worth of therapeutic food and growth monitoring equipment to the Nigerien Government to strengthen efforts by the Government and other partners involved in managing the food and nutrition crisis affecting the most vulnerable groups in Niger -- particularly children.  

“In January 2005,” said Aboudou Karimou Adjibadé, “UNICEF began taking proactive measures to respond to the inadequate rainfall and the locust attacks that devastated the 2004 agricultural season, by initiating contacts with donors both in Niger and in Europe to come to the aid of the people, especially the children, who are victims of the food crisis.”

To address this emergency, Niger’s Office of Crisis Prevention and Management is coordinating the activities of the national government and development partners. UNICEF collaborates with WFP, FAO, and NGOs working in this field (Médecins Sans Frontière, BALD, World Vision and Plan International). The United Nations agencies have launched an emergency appeal to the international community for US $16 million. The funds gathered so far are still largely insufficient to adequately respond to the crisis. Recently the head of Niger’s government also sent out a “distress call” to the international community for emergency food aid.

UNICEF has already delivered 229 tons of grain to the hardest-hit areas. Health facilities in the most affected regions have received part of the therapeutic food. Additional grain and therapeutic food are being ordered. UNICEF’s assistance to Nigerien children has reached nearly US $1 million. Almost a third of this amount was collected through the support of the Belgian, French and Finnish National Committees for UNICEF.

Because malnutrition affects 40% of children in Niger even when harvests are good, UNICEF sets up community-based prevention strategies like cereal banks. Each bank receives an initial stock of 10 tons of millet, which is placed under community management. The stock makes grain available at affordable prices during the lean season, between July and October, when families have exhausted their food supplies and the new crops have not yet been harvested. Consequently, 245 cereal banks have been opened in UNICEF intervention zones. The 2004 grain deficits prevented communities from restocking their cereal banks.

At this time, some 800,000 children are malnourished, 150,000 of whom show signs of acute malnutrition. According to official estimates, 3,815 villages, or approximately 3.3 million people are directly affected by the current food crisis. In supplementary feeding centres, admissions of severely malnourished children are growing at alarming rates.

UNICEF intends treat 30,000 severely malnourished children and make grain available to 327,000 people in the most affected communities, which will require a budget of US $2,048,000. Currently, UNICEF is still seeking US $1,095,000 of that total to complete the amount already invested.

Niger’s population is estimated at 11.5 million inhabitants. According to UNDP, the country is ranked second to last in the Human Development Index. More than two thirds of the population lives on less than US $1 per day. One child in four dies before his or her fifth birthday.

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