At a glance: Niger

As the ‘hunger season’ begins in Niger, UN nutrition appeal offers hope for the Sahel

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
A malnourished child is spoon-fed at the UNICEF-assisted therapeutic feeding centre in the market town of Maradi, Niger.

By Sarah Crowe

NIAMEY, Niger, 28 March 2006 – This is the start of the ‘hunger season’ for the Sahel – the vast parched region of West Africa that is one of the poorest on earth – and it is beginning to show in the faces of infants. In a bid to avoid a repeat of the 2005 nutrition crisis here, the United Nations today launched a funding appeal for approximately $92 million to cover the food and nutrition needs of Sahelian countries this year.

With food stocks depleted and new crops not yet available, rates of acute child malnutrition in the region are already at emergency levels. And because of poverty and debt, the lean season is becoming longer every year. Even during the best of times, the countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) face some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. Last year was one of the worst ever.

Worrying signs

Despite a good recent harvest, many families in Niger have sold off their grain to pay debts from last year, when locust plagues and devastating drought plunged the Sahel into crisis. Many are down to the most basic means of survival – berries, insects and animal feed.

Now there are worrying signs that thousands more children may die this year in the Sahel unless help arrives quickly. 

“Our people who are going to the villages to check for moderate malnutrition inform us that right now some villages are almost empty,” says Ester Ruiz de Azua of the non-governmental organization Action Against Hunger. “There is no food, and that means it is going to be really serious in the next month or two.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF/HQ05-1055/Chalasani
Two boys carrying empty sacks stand in a field of millet, a staple in Niger, near their home in one of the areas most affected by the 2005 food crisis.

With an average of eight children per family and low education levels, many of Niger’s families live a hand-to-mouth existence. Poor planning and bad nutrition habits die hard here. Mothers stop breastfeeding too soon and often bring their babies to nutrition centres too late.

As a result, there is an urgent need for life-saving action – including systematic growth monitoring and scaling up of therapeutic and supplementary feeding centres. In addition, development programmes are needed to expand nutrition and health services for young children. 

Early investment saves lives

Ironically, the crisis in Niger is not about a lack of food. In the markets of Maradi and Niamey, mounds of brightly coloured fresh vegetables and pyramids of grain, spices and beef pack the windy alleys. What is lacking, as in many of the countries of the Sahel, is access to information, health care and essential foods.

The nutrition crisis primarily affects infants and young children under the age of two, who suffer from low birth weight, poor breastfeeding practices, inadequate complementary foods and inadequate access to basic services. Children are hardest hit by the crisis because they are the most vulnerable – more exposed due to the physiological needs associated with growth and development, and less protected because of weak immune systems resulting from malnutrition.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF/HQ05-1282/Chalasani
Women return to their homes near Maradi, Niger, with sacks of millet. UNICEF bought the grain and provides it to villagers at highly subsidized prices through a 'cereal bank' .

The new UN funding appeal is intended to change what sometimes has seemed an inevitable cycle in the Sahel region.

“Each time we wait, a lot of children go from a state of chronic malnutrition to moderate malnutrition, and if nothing is done these become cases of severe malnutrition very fast,” says UNICEF’s Representative in Niger, Aboudou Karimou Adjibade. “Each time we can invest at the early stage, we know we are saving the lives of thousands and thousands of children.” 
 
Nutrition emergency programme

Today’s appeal covers 22 humanitarian projects in the Sahel in the areas of agriculture, food aid, nutrition and health. The projects involve various agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Development Programme, World Food Programme, World Health Organization, UN Population Fund, UNICEF and Afrique Verte.

Humanitarian organizations are convinced that urgent and effective action will indeed save lives in the region, and last year’s experience in Niger seems to bear this out.

From July through December, despite a slow response from the donor community, 325,000 children in the country benefited from UNICEF-supported feeding programmes with recovery rates of about 90 per cent. UNICEF also was able to distribute to therapeutic feeding centres 4,259 tons of UNIMIX porridge, over 42 tons of therapeutic milk and 166 tons of Plumpy’nut, a vitamin-rich peanut paste. This year, between 1 January and 16 March, 33,895 undernourished Nigerien children were admitted to the nutrition emergency programme supported by UNICEF.

Among the partners working alongside UNICEF and the Government of Niger in the massive campaign to fight malnutrition are other UN agencies and 24 international NGOs, including Action Against Hunger, Helen Keller International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Plan International and Save the Children.


 

 

Video

28 March 2006:
UNICEF Correspondent Sarah Crowe reports on the UN appeal to fund nutrition in the Sahel, the vast parched region of West Africa bordering the Sahara.

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