Emergency response

Niger food crisis

© UNICEF/HQ05-1044/Chalasani
For a large proportion of the people of Niger, food security is rare in any year. In 2005, the balance tipped into scarcity, and the number of children needing medical and nutritional assistance exploded.

That undernutrition in this country is more the norm than the exception reveals the true crisis: a perpetual lack of access to food, to essential health services, and to information and support on child feeding and care – all against a backdrop of desperate poverty. This crisis should not be seen as normal and therefore acceptable, but as a call to help Niger reduce poverty and hunger in a truly lasting way.

Niger’s food shortage did not take the world by surprise. In 2004, insufficient rainfall coupled with a locust invasion resulted in poor harvests, and the yearly ‘lean season’ came early and stayed late. By early 2005, personal food stores were exhausted and, by June, cereal banks were empty. Spikes in grain prices in West Africa’s subregional markets aggravated the crisis. With prices of staples at record highs, many people could not afford to buy basic food items.

In the first months of 2005, admissions of severely wasted children to therapeutic feeding centres rose dramatically. By mid-July, admission rates were at least twice as high as those registered a year earlier.

Progressive response

By late 2004, UNICEF had revised its emergency plan and stepped up monitoring in districts at risk. In April 2005, it issued an emergency request for $1 million, after already diverting a significant amount of its Niger country programme budget for response to the crisis. The UN system launched a ‘flash’ appeal for $16 million in May, including UNICEF’s request, now increased to $1.3 million. In early August, the UN revised its request to $81 million. As part of this, UNICEF’s request increased to $14.6 million.

Extensive media coverage in July and August accelerated donor response to the appeals.

Of the $19.7 million in cash and in-kind contributions donated to UNICEF, 92 per cent was spent by year-end, 79 per cent for supplies and the rest for training, direct financial assistance and other services.

As a direct result of increased funds applied to acute need, the number of centres treating severely and moderately wasted children rose from 30 at the start of 2005 to 549 by early October. During the year, UNICEF supported openings of more than 860 centres in partnership with the World Food Programme and 24 different NGOs. Around 325,000 children received nutritional and medical care, and the 90 per cent cure rate for children treated in the feeding programmes demonstrated the high quality of action by all partners.

A comprehensive nutrition survey carried out in October 2005 by the Ministry of Public Health, UNICEF, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that 15.3 per cent of children aged 6–59 months are wasted, and half of all children in this age range suffer from stunting. Based on this fresh data, an estimated 500,000 children in Niger will need nutritional assistance in 2006.