UNICEF and partners respond as food crisis in Niger reaches a critical level
'We don't have any food left in this village'
By Bob Coen
GAZOURA, Niger, 3 August 2010 – Much-needed rains have begun falling across this parched West African country, breaking one of the most devastating droughts in memory. But Niger remains in the grip of a severe food crisis whose effects have been especially hard on women and children.
VIDEO: July 2010 - UNICEF correspondent Bob Coen reports on the food emergency that is devastating families in Niger.
“It’s a disaster. We don’t have any food left in this village,” says Raya Sahi, a mother of 10 who has been forced to forage for wild fruits and leaves to feed her family.
Little relief for families
Like most of the men in the village, Raya’s husband has left in search of work and food. But in the months he’s been gone, he has only managed to send one bag of grain. Each morning, she is forced to venture into the scorching heat with her youngest four children to pick anza, a wild fruit that survives in drought. Even her toddlers help.
A mother in Niger feeds her child Plumpy'nut, a peanut-based paste rich in micronutrients, which is supplied by UNICEF to help malnourished children regain strength and weight.
“All that we are left with are these leaves and wild fruit,” she says. “My eldest two girls have to go begging in the village while my young ones help me pick the wild fruit we’re surviving on. This morning the big girls came back with nothing, but thank goodness we were able to pick some fruit. This is the situation.”
To be made edible, the bitter anza berries need to be pounded, washed with soap and then cooked for three days. Once cooked, this will be this family’s only sustenance, providing little relief from hunger and even less nutritional value.
Medicine, supplies and training
In the town of Doungou, the regional health centre is overrun with undernourished babies and their desperate mothers. Every day, more and more children are being referred to Centres for Outpatient Nutritional Rehabilitation for Severe Malnutrition (also known as CRENAS).
Two girls in Niger, where a food crisis has caused widespread malnutrition. Many families are surviving on wild fruit.
“We are at the peak of malnutrition,” says head nurse Illa Malaman. “We’re seeing lots of malnourished children these days because there is nothing left to eat at home. Their mothers and parents simply can’t cope.”
All children under the age of five and all pregnant women receive free health care in Niger; UNICEF is supporting the country’s public health system by providing health centres with medicine and supplies, and training health workers.
Most of the malnourished children referred to the CRENAS facilities are treated with Plumpy'nut, a ready-to-eat therapeutic food supplied by UNICEF. This nutritious, high-energy paste is rich in micro-nutrients and can have dramatic results in a matter of days.
An anxious mother watches over her sick child in one of the UNICEF-supported health centres where the most serious cases of malnutrition are treated in Niger.
Plumpy'nut also allows children to be treated at home because it is requires no preparation. But it does not work in all cases. Those children who are severely malnourished and have lost their appetites are referred to Intensive Nutritional Rehabilitation Centres (CRENI) that offer specialized emergency care.
The centres are run by an international non-governmental organization with support from UNICEF. The CRENI beds are full of emaciated children barely holding onto life as their distraught mothers stand over them, powerless to intervene.
While most of these children recuperate with proper care, preventing new cases is an urgent priority for UNICEF.
‘A lifeline for the children’
To that end, UNICEF has helped the government launch a blanket feeding programme in partnership with the World Food Programme and others. Through the programme, mothers who have at least one child between six months and two years of age receive a ration of oil, sugar and fortified flour.
Mothers and their malnourished children are treated at a health centre in Niger.
“This operation is a lifeline for the children,” said Brema Garba Yaya of the NGO Human Appeal International. “If we didn’t have this blanket feeding intervention, a lot more children would fall prey to severe malnutrition. We will be continuing this programme right up until the harvesting season in December.”
Still, the consequences of the food crisis will be long-term. Health experts expect the crisis to continue for several more months, at least until the first harvests at the end of the year.
“We are in a critical situation. We are predicting this to be a very difficult year in terms of food,” said UNICEF Nutrition Officer Elizabeth Zanou.
“Even if we hope that the rains will produce a good harvest, this crisis will be with us until October and even longer,” added UNICEF Representative in Niger Guido Cornale. “Recuperation is not immediate for families who have lost everything.”