Published on
The Independent/UK

Millions Face Starvation as Niger Prays in Vain for Rain

Urgent aid is needed to avert a catastrophe in west Africa, reports

Alastair Stewart

Nomadic tribal chief Ibrahim Mangari walks past a cow that died of hunger, in Gadabeji (AP)

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
on earth with child mortality worse than Afghanistan. The absence of
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
That is when the rainy season is expected. But the starving livestock
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
Nations agrees, it says that the situation is of a magnitude not
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
years in school; girls, just three. Two-thirds of the people of Niger
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
it to France's burgeoning nuclear power industry. The fruits of this
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
little hope the benefits of geological benevolence will bless these
beleaguered people. Half of Niger's government budget derives from
aid. The proceeds of its natural resources will benefit Paris and
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
Two glaring truths are evident: the curative, durable work can and is
done; but the vicissitudes of climate
makes it all a gamble at the edge of

The "swollen-tummy" syndrome may not have taken root everywhere yet
but with real fears that the harvest of 2010 will be a frighteningly
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
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

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

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 -
about 20 per cent under the expected weight for their ages.

They left their village after prayers at 5.30am and arrived at opening
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
cornered by speculators - poor people had very little to see them
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
Food Fund and other UN agencies. But they have got their sums, by all
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.
target, recently raised, was too low, the budget inadequate and still

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
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

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
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,

Ahead the road disappears in a haze of wind-blown sand. But that, I am
is good. Strong winds, lifting dry sand into the air, often
foreshadows rain
in the cold African night.

Hope through the haze.

But, alas, the prophesy was only partially true. It rained for 12
Half an inch below the surface, the earth was bone dry. Another false
in the scorching heat.

We drive on and see people tilling the barren soil around the tiny
plants, laid down by a government that now, at least, admits there is a

crisis. They bend in the wind, both plants and farmers. Many were
herds-people but their stock
has long since gone, either starved to death or
sold at rock-bottom prices for scant sustenance.

Mohammed Gusnam explains: "I used to have 100 animals - now just one. As

herders we were like princes, proud. Now the pasture land is
And the village to me is a like a prison."

But this, for them, is a new life's work and a last throw of the dice.
Because, in truth, they can "plough the fields and scatter" as
much as they like but unless it rains, it is for nothing: reap, they
not. And, as if to underline that, the sprouts of millet get more
stunted as
we drive deeper into the dry-lands. They will not flourish even if it
to rain.

"We have gone two weeks without being able to cook anything, we are just

waiting and hoping that the children send money,"
another man whose
five children have left their village to seek work and food, says,
adding: "The
future is in God's hands, we are waiting for God."

The writer is a CARE International ambassador. To contribute to the
appeal please go to

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