Food distribution begins in starved Niger

The World Food Programme (WFP) said on Monday that thanks to the outpouring of international aid in recent days to help hungry Niger, emergency food distribution to 270 000 people could begin this week.

“Our goal is to distribute 4 000 tonnes of food this week so we can help 270 000 people in the most vulnerable zones,” WFP country director Gian Carlo Cirri said.

The announcement, however, was clouded by warnings from relief agency Médécins sans Frontières (MSF) that the worst is still to come in the vast and arid north-west African state.

An estimated one in three of the country’s 12-million people is threatened by severe malnutrition.

The WFP by the end of the week will begin to airlift, from Italy to Niger, equipment including tents and vehicles as well as emergency rations, spokesperson Stephanie Savariaud said.

After months of appeals, international aid has finally begun to pour into Niger, with New Zealand and Britain among the latest countries to commit funds and in-kind donations.

Wellington offered $500 000 on Monday while London boosted the United Kingdom’s contribution to £3-million with the announcement of another million-pound pledge on Monday. The African Union also approved a million-dollar grant for emergency relief.

Among the first boxes of food to be unpacked from the giant Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft will be high-protein biscuits to target the worst cases of malnutrition—the more than 150 000 children at risk of starvation or even death from the food crisis.

No stranger to chronic malnutrition owing to its status as one of the world’s least-developed countries, Niger was doubly hit last year by drought and an invasion of desert locusts that was the worst in more than a decade.

More than 200 000 tonnes of grains—or a third of the annual production—were devoured or destroyed, depleting national food stocks and leaving the cash-strapped government with few resources to refill them.

Some of the stocks arriving in Niger are coming overland from regional neighbours, many of whom pleaded their own shortage of cereals as justification for price hikes that almost doubled the cost of the sorghum, millet and rice that are staples of the Sahel diet.

These shortages could be coming at the worst time possible, warned Johannes Sekkedes, chief of mission for MSF in Niger, estimating that the country is entering the lean season, the riskiest time of year even when there have been good harvests.

“The worst two months of the year are ahead of us,” Sekkedes said. “The granaries are almost empty; everything has been eaten.
It’s rainy season, which means that any malnutrition can be aggravated by illness, from diarrhoea to malaria.”

There has been no official death toll from this year’s food crisis, though Niger authorities say about 1,6-million people face a “critical” or “extremely critical” risk of malnutrition.—Sapa-AFP