Monday, June 21, 2010

Tens of thousands of animals dying as Niger faces food crisis

A sudden sandstorm whipped up and dramatically turned the air bright red in Niamey as I started to write this blog. Within ten minutes rain filled the air. At first it was only a very light fall. But then the water came in dramatic heavy bursts. And it continued for the next two hours

People told me it was the most rain they’d seen for many months in Niger - a country where rainfall for the past year has been extremely erratic. That’s led to a sharp drop in crop production and the disappearance of large areas of grasslands. Herders have had to travel further afield in search of pasture and water for their livestock.

It is often said that for most Nigeriens, livestock are their bank accounts. More than 80% of people here live in rural areas, and depend on subsistence agriculture and stockbreeding. If times are good they’ll buy more animals, which is seen as an investment in the future. But now times are bad

And many herders, facing growing hunger, food shortages and rising prices for basic cereals, are having to make a tough choice: a decision to sell their prized assets at a fraction of the price they originally paid for them.

More than seven million people in this landlocked West African country are said to be facing food insecurity – almost half the population. Acute malnutrition is on the rise, with young children most at risk. And animals are dying. Tens of thousands of them.

Unable to access enough food and water for their animals, many herders are forced to sell their painfully thin animals, their ribs protruding, at prices well-below market rates. They have no choice: their animals are already on the brink of starvation and will soon fetch nothing.

But these desperate measures also mean that the “bank account” for families is being depleted, making them more vulnerable to future shocks.

One of Oxfam’s main responses to the current crisis has been to offer support to communities focusing on livestock – their main livelihood. We’ve been providing free or subsidized animal feed; vaccinating and de-worming animals. We’re also carrying out “de-stocking” activities: buying weak and thin animals at above-market pre-crisis prices, helping to inject cash into the local economy, and slaughtering and distributing meat from the purchased animals to some of the poorest and most vulnerable households.

“It is an important lifeline for families many of whom rely entirely on their animals for their income”, Mbacke Niang, Oxfam GB’s country director told me. “We’re currently targeting 10,000 pastoral households, many of them extremely vulnerable. But it is not enough. The needs are enormous.

“We’ve only just received more funding to expand our work. But there will still be people in need.”

He’d just returned from an activity marking the official launch of ongoing activities at Mangaiz√©, Oullam district, Tillaberi region.

More than a hundred people turned up for the event, during which cash vouchers and animal fodder was distributed to vulnerable families and the meat of weak animals, purchased by Oxfam, also handed out.

People were grateful for the help but said much more was needed. Oxfam programme officer, Aoula Aichatou, who also attended the event, called the situation “critical”.

“Things are dire, which is why we are intervening to help. So many animals are dying or about to die. We need to offer more support. The needs are huge.”

She showed me some replies Oxfam staff had gathered from villagers in target areas where we’re working. In one village in Abala commune, prices for goats over one-year period had fallen by more than half; for cows, by nearly two-thirds, and yet the cost of basic foods had risen: millet prices had increased by more than 40% and rice by 13 %.

People said their main worries were accessing food for themselves, their animals and getting enough water for drinking and irrigation. How would they cope in these difficult times? The answers ranged from “work hard” to selling wood, and eating wild fruit and vegetables. Many families are already eating one meal a day or reducing rations.

But one answer that caught my eye was from a female headed-household. They had no livestock, no money and had only eaten four times in the last seven days. What was their coping strategy? “Patience only” was the reply.
We’re only at the start of the most critical period in Niger, the hunger gap season, with several months to go before the next harvests. Without urgent funding to support aid agencies responding to the food crisis, both in Niger and across many other countries in West Africa, families will need more than just patience to survive.

Signs of Niger's worsening food crisis

I'd been in Niger for less than a day, and things were not quite what I'd expected. There are few obvious signs warning visitors arriving in the capital, Niamey, a slow-paced and laid back place, that life for millions of Nigeriens is beginning to get extremely desperate.

A worsening food crisis prompted the government to acknowledge a problem in March and launch an emergency appeal for help.

The appeal by Niger's new military leaders, who took power in a coup in February, was seen as an important break from the past. In 2005, during Niger's last serious food crisis, the previous government had strongly denied there was any problem.

Aid agencies, like Oxfam, have also been sounding alarm bells, warning that this year more than seven million, approaching half of the population, are facing hunger with malnutrition rates on the rise. Yet donors have been slow to respond and organisations like Oxfam are struggling to fund programmes to deal with the widening crisis.

Niger is already one of the poorest countries in the world. And it boasts some unenviable statistics: the fastest population growth in the world, which has seen the population rise from 2.5 million in 1950 to more than 15 million now; one of the world's highest infant mortality rates; more than 40% of children under-five underweight for their age, their growth stunted by hunger; low literacy and school attendance rates.

It's a country that often experiences cycles of drought which has a devastating impact on the majority of its people who live in rural area, depend on subsistence agriculture and breeding livestock. But this year has been worst than most. Erratic rains last year caused a 30 percent reduction in cereal production.

You would hardly know it in Niamey, where the bustling colourful markets are full of fresh fruit, vegetables and cereals. The same is true across most major towns, with much of the food imported. The problem, say analysts, isn't the shortage of food available, but the ability of people to access it.

Prices have soared - in some areas, doubling. But incomes have fallen by the same amount. Families have been forced to sell their highly valued but currently under-fed livestock and receiving prices that are pitifully below normal market rates. They're selling their remaining family assets and agricultural tools; often getting heavily into debt in order to borrow money to buy food and seeds for planting.

And that's forcing families to pull their children out of school and abandon their homes, moving to towns and cities, often crossing borders, in search of help.

Oxfam driver, Mohamed, pointed out people in the street to me as we traveled to the office. "They're not from Niamey", he said.

"They're beggars and they've come from the countryside."

Some estimate that the number of people begging in the capital has doubled this year. As we drove, I started to notice some telling signs. Often, women and children resting from the overpowering heat under trees; children approaching cars at traffic lights gesturing and pointing to their mouths that they are hungry and holding out their hands in expectation of food or money; women using sieves to sift through the sandy ground to find any grains of cereal that had escaped from food trucks. It wasn't so easy to tell, though, if these were families newly-arrived from the countryside.

But outside the Oxfam office that morning, I met father of two, Issoufou Moumouni, walking down the street with a small tin bowl in his hands. He told me he had left his village in Fandou-Kaina, in Oullam region three weeks ago. He guessed that nearly forty men from the village of around 50 households had left home in search of work and food in the last few months.

"Its very bad this year. We can't grow anything. There is no rain and there is no hope", he told me, smiling ruefully.

But if things are bad now, they're likely to get worse. We're at the start of what's known as the hunger gap season. There are several months to go before the next harvests in September. If Nigeriens, well-used to dealing with drought and hunger, are struggling now, one can only fear what will happen in the coming weeks unless they get much more help.