A new study has found that between 70 and 90 per cent of people from communities in western and eastern Niger fear their food stocks will run out before the next harvest, creating an imminent ‘hunger gap’. All families surveyed said they had already reduced the amount of food consumed each day because they did not have enough to eat.
The study was conducted by the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) and the Emergency Capacity Building Project (a coalition including CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Plan International, Save the Children and World Vision), with input from the World Food Programme and the Government of Niger.
It is the latest evidence that points to a humanitarian disaster in the Sahel if the world does not respond quickly with urgently-needed assistance to those already in crisis, and activities to prevent more families from going hungry.
More than 13 million people are at risk from a food crisis in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa, including one million children at risk of severe malnutrition. Erratic rains and pests and locusts destroyed entire harvests in 2011, leaving families with nothing to eat through this year’s hungry season. High food and fodder prices are leaving people with few options. In Niger alone, more than six million people are at risk of hunger with nearly two million of those in critical need of food and assistance now.
In a typical year, the hungry season – when people start cutting back on meals – does not usually start until May or June. This year, the surveyed communities in Diffa and Tillabéri said the hungry season has already started and that the situation is already critical and will get worse. Findings of the study include:
- Farmers and pastoralists said last year’s harvest was twice as bad as 2009, when a catastrophic drought and high food prices led to a country-wide humanitarian disaster.
- One-quarter of communities said children were dropping out of school because families left in search of work, the school canteens closed or the children must work.
- People were forced to sell their animals to buy food, which is flooding the market and causing livestock prices to plummet.
- Approximately 80 per cent of people do not have enough seed stored to plant for the next season, putting people at risk of hunger next year.
- Nearly one-third of the population is still in debt from the last widespread crop failure in 2009.
“In the villages, more mothers aren’t able to feed their children more than once a day. We can’t wait until it becomes one meal every second day and those children are starving and suffer, life-long effects from malnutrition,” said Johannes Schoors, Country Director of CARE Niger. “Many families haven’t recovered from the 2005 and 2010 crises. They need our help now.”
Rheal Drisdelle, Plan’s Country Director in Niger said, “Young children are at greatest risk of acute malnutrition, which can lead to developmental delays, stunt growth and make them more vulnerable to infections and disease. Failure to act now will have devastating consequences for a whole generation of children in West Africa.”
Communities said instability in neighbouring countries is making things worse. Wages have plummeted because people cannot move freely for work, a typical coping strategy, and refugees from conflict in Mali have crossed into Niger, putting additional strain on families already facing food shortages.
“People are arriving exhausted, hungry and in need of the very basics but Niger is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees. Poor villages have been overwhelmed with people, some expanding seven-fold in just a few months, with refugees forced to live in overcrowded homes and makeshift shacks. The extra strain is pushing families to the brink of survival,” said Chris Palusky, World Vision’s Food Crisis Response Manager for Mali and Niger.
Samuel Braimah, Country Director of Oxfam in Niger said, “This year, we’re witnessing a lethal cocktail that is putting enormous strain on households across the country. Following several crises since 2005, their coping mechanisms have reached their limit and already pushed thousands over the edge. The worst can be avoided and thousands of lives will be saved if we act now.”
Based on the results of the assessment, the seven agencies recommend the following:
Donors must provide funding now to implement immediate support for families already in desperate need and to prevent more people from tipping over the edge into crisis. We know from experience that waiting will lead to needless deaths, loss of livelihoods, and a costlier response. In February 2012 the Australian Government provided $10 million through the World Food Programme and other UN partners to focus on the worst hit countries of Niger and Chad. Several Australian non-government organisations have launched West Africa appeals.
Agencies must act quickly to scale up interventions to address food security and malnutrition, particularly for the most vulnerable: children under the age of two, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and the elderly. The specific needs of pastoralists must also be addressed.
This is a chronic emergency with long-term causes. Any response must work with local governments to integrate risk reduction measures to help families be more resilient to food shortages and drought and prevent them from falling into crisis.
The full report can be downloaded at www.acaps.org.
For further information, and to arrange interviews, please contact:
In Niger, Gaëlle Bausson, media lead, Oxfam email@example.com or +227 9240 7424
In Australia, Chee Chee Leung, media coordinator, Oxfam Australia firstname.lastname@example.org or +61 400 732 795