Millions Face Starvation As Niger Prays In Vain For Rain

Millions Face Starvation As Niger Prays In Vain For Rain

To the north of Niger, the creeping Sahara; to the south, oil rich and agriculturally lush Nigeria – this nation straddles the Sahel – dry, hot and cruel. It has suffered catastrophic droughts – 1974, 1984 and 2005. And now, another.

Five times the size of the United Kingdom, Niger is one of the poorest nations on earth with child mortality worse than Afghanistan. The absence of regular rainfall throughout 2009 has led to poor harvests, lack of grazing for animals and food reserves exhausted.

Hungry people have started adding "bitter" berries to their diet – this is survival food, normally unpalatable but when starving, the unpalatable becomes welcome – essential.

The tipping point, according to one expert is about a week away – 15 July. That is when the rainy season is expected. But the starving livestock may nibble away whatever green-shoots push through.

Ten leading aid agencies launched a joint appeal yesterday, warning that up to 10 million people across the eastern Sahel, faced acute hunger. The United Nations agrees, it says that the situation is of a magnitude not previously seen. Niger is at the centre of this crisis, with half of its population – 7 million people – going hungry.

The statistics, generally, for this West African country, are overwhelming – less than a third of the people are literate: boys spend on average five years in school; girls, just three. Two-thirds of the people of Niger live beneath the poverty line, 85 per cent on less than $2 – or £1 – a day.

But set that against these great ironies: Niger has uranium aplenty and sells it to France's burgeoning nuclear power industry. The fruits of this trade are hard to see. And there is oil, as in northern neighbour Libya. The partners are the Chinese who will begin production soon. Again, there is little hope the benefits of geological
benevolence will bless these beleaguered people. Half of Niger's government budget derives from donor aid. The proceeds of its natural resources will benefit Paris and Beijing before Niamey.

Heading east, into the badlands, we pass acres of planted millet and the occasional pool of orange, muddy water from the recent short, sharp rains. Two glaring truths are evident: the curative, durable work can and is being done; but the vicissitudes of climate makes it all a gamble at the edge of survival.

The "swollen-tummy" syndrome may not have taken root everywhere yet but with real fears that the harvest of 2010 will be a frighteningly small affair. And by then, for thousands, it will be too late.

At a health centre in Goumbi Kano, established by the charity Care International, one of those taking part in the appeal, and part-funded by the Niger government, I meet two women who had walked 8km, with their malnourished babies, to see Dr Moustaphe Chaibou.

Hasana and Maimouna, and babies Farida and Saredja, have been regulars for six weeks.

"I have no milk. When the baby cries, I give her millet," Hasana says.

The babies are showing signs of improvement. They get their regular prescription of a "plumpy nut" product, antibiotics and anti-malarial drugs. Still frighteningly underweight for their age, the 17 -month old was still a babe in arms, the 10-month old like a newborn – both about 20 per cent under the expected weight for their ages.

They left their village after prayers at 5.30am and arrived at opening time, around 8am. Then they headed back before the noon heat.

I asked the doctor what would happen if the rains failed: "Catastrophe, désolé," he said in perfect French.

The drought of 2009 made the September harvest poor – what it yielded was cornered by speculators – poor people had very little to see them through and it is now gone. The "biscuit-barrel" grain stores are empty and have been for weeks.

It has already been a long, hungry wait ameliorated by aid workers, the World Food Fund and other UN agencies. But they have got their sums, by all accounts, badly wrong. They budgeted for 1.7 million hungry souls but find themselves $97 million short . The aid community say the numbers in need are closer to 7 million – and about 3 million are in desperate need now. The target, recently raised, was too low, the budget inadequate and still under-funded.

The people still have until September to wait for handouts and hope.

In 1973 the community of N-Guigmi hardly existed. It now has a population of about 15,000 – people who were driven there from a pastoral existence in the countryside by drought and famine to a town, and a new way of life.

It is a terrifying template for this country unless a lasting solution is found. Those souls gave up waiting and gave up hope.

We meet Ishan Ila Gamma, a widow with eight dependents, in Tajae Nomade village. "I used to have more than 30 animals," she says. "Now I only have one good one remaining. I have been forced to sell all the others at cheap prices. I was forced to go to the city, I beg and sell herbs."

Again, the people of Niger are playing the waiting game – waiting for rain and for an autumn harvest; waiting for the UN and the World Food Programme to get their sums right and attract the donations to pay for the food aid; or waiting for the world to add Niger to the desperate list of Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea.

If I truly believed praying for rain would bring it to these people to see their crops grow, I would. This is truly a human catastrophe. Global warming is now gravely affecting these areas. Per scientists this will be the warmest year on record. Animals are already dying, and many of all species will follow the longer we continue to think this is just a political grandstanding game in this country. Drought is now affecting close to 40% of our world, and as global temperatures increase it will become more common as will starvation. If their rains do not come soon, as was said in this article it will be "catastrophe, désolé." And this is just the beginning. But there are things you can do...

Tree Nation In Niger

Tree Nation is a wonderful organization I am proud to be a part of that is dedicated to planting 8 million trees in the shape of a heart in the heart of Niger to provide mitigation and adaptation to climate change, fight poverty, hunger and deforestation, and bring water back to the roots of this land.

You can plant a tree in Niger from your modem and make a difference in the lives of many people. Solving this crisis will not come from politicians, it will come from us.

Moringa Oleifera is the answer!

Number of dams by country

I will try to find a more updated source, but as of 2008 Africa had 1269 dams. Could be one reason why so many countries there are now experiencing drought as well. Using solar power in Africa on a massive scale and breaching the dams that are unnecessary and were only built to make government officials and construction companies richer would also go very far in bringing back agricultural lands to Africa and mitigating global warming, hunger and poverty.

Just as a point of reference, according to this list China had 22,000 dams (yes, thousand) and Australia 486. Two more places where drought is pronounced and life threatening with failing crops. The correlation between excessive dam building that causes environmental devastation, exacerbation of CO 2 emissions, loss of fish stocks and agricultural land and diversion of water sources in my view cannot be denied.


Debbie said…
It is true that little is being done to help the people of Niger, particularly those in the rural regions, even though every year they cope with a lengthening drought.

But there is hope.

Amman Imman: Water is Life ( addressing the problem of water scarcity in Niger, working directly with the people of the Azawak region to build permanent and sustainable sources of water.

Amman Imman recently completed construction of a borehole in Kijigari village. Now, the children can stay in school and cease searching for water. The community garden will flourish. The animals can quench their thirst. The people have an opportunity to build their economy because they have water to drink.

Amman Imman intends to build these oases of life through the Azawak valley. Read Amman Imman's latest news to keep in touch with development in Niger, and to find out what the organization is doing to address these issues:

We invite you to support our work by making a donation as well,
Jan said…
Thank you for adding your comment, and I hope it brings you some donations. I featured your group here a while back and think the work you do is incredible. Thank you so much.

Debbie said…
Hi, Jan,
Thanks very much for your support! I had lost touch with your blog, and so I'm glad I found it again. Here is our latest update, about the opening of our borehole in the village of Kijigari:

We're sending out another email tomorrow with a very nice video of the village celebration. If you'd like to subscribe to our newsletter and be on our mailing list, here's where you can sign up:

Best wishes,