for National Geographic News
When widespread hunger began ravaging the West African nation of Niger earlier this year, the crisis was largely blamed on the drought that had struck the country a year ago.
But a closer look at the environmental factors behind the food crisisincluding geography, drought, and insect infestationsreveals a more complex picture of why so many people are going hungry, and why the hunger will return.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, is landlocked and mostly desert. But its southern region, where most of its 11 million people live, is fertile. Niger produces more grain per year than Kenya, a greener and more affluent country.
Droughts strike Niger once or twice every five years. But the one that hit the region last year was not particularly severe, causing only about a 10 percent drop in the nation's food production.
So while nearly three million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition in Niger, the markets in the capital city of Niamey and other towns remain stocked with food.
The problem, experts say, is that much of Niger's population are poor subsistence farmers, barely able to stave off hunger even in good years. Constantly struggling against the forces of nature to grow enough to eat, they have almost no money to buy grain when their own crops fail and prices rise.
Like many Africans, the people of Niger live in a precarious balance with their environment, and even the slightest disruptionlike a relatively minor and predictable droughtcan create a serious food crisis.
"People in Niger live on a thin line and depend on water falling from the sky," said Stefanie Savariaud, a spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Programme in Niamey. "A shock like [last year's drought] has very serious implications."
When the drought began in Niger in 2004, aid agencies warned of a potential famine this year. Major international food aid did not materialize until images of the hungry appeared in Western media this summer.
But while malnutrition rates remain high in much of Niger, with 2.7 million people in need of food aid, a full-fledged famine seems to have been averted.
Food security experts say that famine is generally associated with widespread deaths due to starvation, which has not been the case in Niger. Indeed, some experts are reluctant even to use the term "emergency" to describe the crisis.
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