GUIDAN ROUMDJI, Niger — Her food reserves have almost run out, but Tini Kane, 50 years old and widowed three times, must feed all 23 members of her family. Like many other Nigerien farmers, she sold her precious goats to cope with the bad harvests of this year and last, even though she still goes hungry and her grandchildren suffer from malnutrition.
“The misery of Niger is famine,” she said. The country endured a similar crisis from a drought in 2010.
Millions of people in the West African side of the Sahel region, which belts the bottom of the Sahara Desert, are caught up in the current humanitarian disaster – a famine that trudges on month after month, affecting 19 million people in varying degrees in the world’s poorest nations: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. (Niger ranks 186 out of 187 countries on the United Nations human development index, one rung above the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
Politics, economics, desertification and long droughts have resulted in crop failures and poor harvests in Niger, where most people farm. Inconsistent yields and wild swings in food prices are here to stay because of climate change, say international aid groups, who have been trying to help poor countries like Niger cope with their cycles of drastic food shortages. Recent flooding has complicated life even more in Niger.
The UN World Food Program said it was operating an emergency relief program to support 4.18 million people this year in Niger, with a special focus on small children. About 35 percent of people are being helped with cash. More than 600,000 people have received support through other World Food programs, its Web site says. A UN humanitarian official said earlier this month that the acute aspect of the famine crisis has actually been “contained” and that the 2013 harvest appears good, but malnutrition is a chronic condition in Niger.
Globally, food prices rose an average of 1.4 percent in September, just below crises levels, but a large shock in prices is said to be possible in coming months. The price of cereal in Niger, a commodity much in demand, is well above seasonal norms. Grains must be imported, say, from Nigeria, at inflated rates.
Population growth, high fuel costs, failed development policies and higher food prices have also put almost half the country, more than six million, at risk of going hungry in a country of 16 million. The malnutrition ratesremain elevated; 10 percent of children under five suffer from acute malnutrition, and 44 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Of the 56,000 severely malnourished children treated by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières in French) in the Sahel between January 2012 and the end of June, more than 36,000 were treated in Niger.
The terrorist conflict in northern Mali has placed added strains on food supplies and instability in the Sahel, with hundreds of thousand Malian refugees staked out in UN camps set up in neighboring countries, including Niger.
Some rich nations, the UN and humanitarian organizations are well aware that the famines around the world must be approached in new ways as droughts linger longer and increase.
European Union officials have introduced a new policy to help build resilience to disasters in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. The plans include improved farming methods and better coordination between humanitarian and development groups to respond more efficiently to future crises, even though a warning system as to the threat of famine proved useful in the Sahel crisis.
The United States has donated more than $300 million this year to humanitarian aid in the Sahel. More than $56 million has gone to the World Food Program, of which about $36 million is slated for in-kind food aid and distribution and $20 million to buy and distribute regionally grown sorghum, a staple in the local diet.
Yet it is never certain that food donations end up in the neediest hands. In September, Niger’s interior minister said that some international aid intended for victims of the recent floods was stolen, the Associated Press reported.
Abdou Labo told reporters Saturday that “at several of the sites where we are housing displaced people, we have determined that the food aid and the products (sent there) did not arrive in their entirety.”
The AP report said, for example, that in a neighborhood of Niamey, the capital, a resident said that of 30 tons of cereals that were sent, only 10 arrived.
Back at the Doctors Without Borders intensive nutritional center in Guidan Roumdji, the lines of emaciated mothers and children just grow longer.
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Tanya Bindra is a freelance documentary photographer and writer based in Bamako, Mali. Her work has been published in such newspapers and magazines as Libération, Le Monde and Jeune Afrique, as well as on global news Web sites such as The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian and Al Jazeera. Bindra is a graduate of McGill University.