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Food Crisis In Niger Will Strike Again, Experts Say

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 12, 2005
 
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 crisis—including geography, drought, and insect infestations—reveals 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 disruption—like a relatively minor and predictable drought—can 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."

Rain Cycle

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.

"These are not emergency issues but chronic issues," said Michael Hess, assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance in Washington, D.C. Hess recently returned from a trip to the region.

The greatest challenge facing Niger's hungry, he said, is improved access to sanitation and water.

Niger, almost twice the size of Texas, is one of the hottest countries in the world. In the north, the intense heat often causes rain to evaporate before it hits the ground. Farmers grow their crops across a thin band of land in the southernmost part of the country.

Much of this land is potentially productive, because soil conditions are relatively good. But making the most efficient use of the land requires a lot of water, which poor subsistence farmers cannot afford to bring in.

Instead they must rely on rainfall, which averages 22 inches annually in southern regions. This is only enough to produce coarse grains with little nutritional value, like millet, by far the most common crop in Niger.

The rains last year failed at a particularly inopportune time, in May as the crops were developing. Many farmers had to replant as soon as the rains began again in July.

In need of more seeds, subsistence farmers had to borrow seeds from traders and pay them back in grain when the harvest came.

"This leaves [farmers] caught in a cycle where they will not have anything left again come next spring," Hess said.

Pastures

In addition to the drought, a locust invasion last year gave further proof of how fragile the environment is in which Niger's rural poor must work.

Locust infestations, like droughts, are common in the region. Swarms of desert locusts were first observed in Niger in August last year, and the insects later hatched on a massive scale in several parts of the country.

However, the locusts did not go after drying crops, as was expected. Instead they feasted on the still-green pastures where livestock graze.

As a result, more than 50 percent of Niger's cattle are believed to have died for lack of food.

"[Niger's farmers] needed more grain to consume, because animal products were less plentiful, and their … less-productive livestock fetched lower prices on the market," said Chris Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Ironically, livestock herds had grown by as much as 50 percent in the years prior to the infestation. Some experts say the deaths may have been a natural result of the fast growth of the herds.

The good news is that the rains have cooperated this year, and there have been no major locust invasions. Much of Niger is expected to see a bumper harvest.

However, that will not prevent another food crisis in the future, warns Hess, the USAID specialist.

"We need to look at the chronic conditions in this country that lead to malnutrition," he said. "These are chronic issues that won't go away."

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