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 Mangaizé, 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.