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Bitter seeds: Addressing the nutrition crisis in Niger

UNICEF Niger/2010/Onimus-Pfortner
© UNICEF Niger/2010/Onimus-Pfortner
Ali, chief of the village of Angalnadinao in Niger's Zinder Region, notes that following crop failure, 60 people out 400 in the village have migrated in hopes of earning enough money to buy food for their families.
 

Angalnadinao, Niger, 31 May 2010 – “This year’s harvest was disastrous,” says Ali, the Angalnadinao village chief. “No cowpeas, no millet, no peanuts – nothing, absolutely nothing, was harvested. A total crop failure.”

As Ali speaks, it is hard to imagine how anything could ever grow out of the dusty soil here in the Zinder Region of southern Niger. The trees that have not yet been chopped down for firewood are thorny and dry.

Rekia, the chief’s daughter-in-law, has just come back from four hours of plucking ‘dilo’, a pale green seed; the quantity will be just enough for one meal. Dilo needs to soak in water for a week before it can be eaten, and even then it is extremely bitter.

“Some say it can give you diarrhoea,” says Rekia. “But what to do? There is nothing else to eat.”

Struggle for subsistence
Due to erratic rainfall, cereal production in Niger has fallen short by almost 120,000 tonnes –a particularly difficult situation given that most Nigeriens are subsistence farmers. More than half of the population – about 7.8 million people out of a total 15 million – are considered vulnerable, and some 2.7 million are classified as ‘extremely food insecure’.

“This village counts some 400 people,” notes Ali. “Sixty have migrated to Nigeria in the hopes of finding means of survival.”

The chief goes on to explain that the situation has never been this bad. Most of the village men have left, with or without their families. Even in Zinder, the nearest big city, there is not enough work for everyone who needs it.

“Those who can, sell their livestock to buy food,” says Ali. “But the prices of animals have plummeted. And if you don’t have any animals, there’s only one thing you can sell: your manpower.”

A mother left behind
Nana’s husband is one of the men who have left Angalnadinao to look for work in Nigeria. She remains behind with their four children, who range from one and a half to six years of age:

“My husband will leave for a period of one to two months, and when he has earned enough money he will come back to buy some food for us,” she says. “We buy only sorghum. It’s hard to find millet this year, and then it’s too expensive. When all the money is eaten up, he leaves again.”

Nana’s youngest child was treated for malnutrition recently. “I had taken my daughter to the health centre in Takieta,” she recalls. “For four weeks in a row, she received a peanut-based fortified paste. Now she is well, but for how long?”

As Nana’s question suggests, children are often hit hardest in situations such as this. The Government of Niger and its partners, including UNICEF, expect almost 380,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition among children aged 6 to 59 months in the next year if nothing more is done to address this crisis. Another 1.2 million cases of moderate malnutrition are expected.

Feeding programme under way
But measures to prevent children from becoming malnourished have already begun. The government, the World Food Programme and UNICEF launched a blanket feeding operation at the end of April, for example, aiming to provide 500,000 children with monthly rations of fortified corn soya blend for four months – until the next harvest.

Still, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children admitted for severe acute malnutrition at hundreds of nutritional rehabilitation centres across Niger since mid-April. Some 124,000 Nigerien children were treated for severe acute malnutrition in all of 2009; at least half that many cases have already been reported this year, even though the bulk of admissions is expected in July and August.

Against the backdrop of this growing crisis, providing nutrition supplies and services on time is critical. And UNICEF plays a key role, supporting service providers – including the government and non-governmental organizations – with therapeutic foods, essential drugs and equipment.

Today, UNICEF and its partners in Niger are working to ensure adequate capacity and quality case management for children and families in the worst affected areas – including the struggling villagers of Angalnadinao.

By Joëlle Onimus-Pfortner

 

 

 

 

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