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Niger: animal deaths sparks second crisis for children

© UNICEFNiger/2010/Ally
Dead and dying cattle in Dakoro, Niger

Gadabedji, Niger, 27 June 2010 - Ibrahim Tonga can’t bear to see the physical condition of his nine children.

They are withering away before his eyes. He’s is doing everything that he can for them but if help does not arrive really soon they may die.

"If you see my children when times were good and then see them now when things are bad, you will cry," the 50-year-old says.

"They are always sick, I cannot afford sufficient food for them. They know there is a crisis and not enough to eat."

This West African state is in the grips of the worst food crisis since 2005 and for Ibrahim who rears animals a second crisis is hitting them.

He and his family are among the 84% that make up the rural population in the country of 15 million people. Eight out of ten people in Niger work in agriculture – either growing crops or raising animals.

4000 animals died of starvation
He lives in the village of Gadabedji in the district of Dakoro, about 700km east of the capital. He was born here, as was his father and his father.

The occupation is passed down through the generations. It is the life of his people - the Touregue (desert people).

"Yesterday, I came out to the pasture and saw many of my animals dying. I dropped to the ground and cried," he recalled.

There are dead animals all around us. One goat is still breathing but too weak to even bleat. It will be dead before sunset.

On the road to this place there were dead animals – oxes and cows. We even came across a dead camel. This reserve is the last grazing outpost.

When the fodder is gone in the rest of the country, the animals come here for "guaranteed pastures".

This year there are none. In the last two weeks, 4 000 animals died of starvation on the reserve. About 10 minutes drive away we pass animal traders slaughtering animals and cooking their meat.

They’re bagging and taking it to Nigeria to sell. "I sold my dying animals to these men. I earned CFA 70,000 (£97). Ordinarily, these animals would have fetched CFA 400,000 (£554)," Ibrahim says.

He sent us to visit his family at his house – a little open-sided open space with a thatch roof where he lives with his wife, Fatima, and nine children.

Halima, 3 years old, has little flesh on her bones but she is in good spirits. She and the other children have been in and out of hospital suffering from severe malnutrition.

Care for acute malnourished children
We find a horse and a donkey there and they too are skin and bones. In Dakoro, the CRENI (a hospital for severely acute malnourished children with complications run by Medecins Sans Frontieres and supported by UNICEF) is filled with very sick children.

Hamza Mahamadou, 7 months old, was admitted 12 days ago.

He had breathing difficulty and diarrhoea but those are symptoms of bigger problems. At his age, he ought to be 7-8kgs but he’s 4.4kgs.

He is severely malnourished and will die without treatment. Treating severe malnutrition is simple and cheap. UNICEF produces a high protein peanut paste named Plumpy’Nut. At 35p per day for a diet of Plumpy’Nut Hamza will fully recover in about four weeks. However, his respiratory tract infection needs to be treated first.

Four beds away is Ai Soiley, also severely malnourished.

His grandmother is here with him because his mother just gave birth and is at home. Ai looks like a 6-month old child but he is 2-years old. He has a bad rash around his waist which looks as though he had been scalded. The doctor says, it’s not a scald. It is complication from severe malnutrition.

His grandmother brought him here not for malnutrition but because he’s had diarrhoea for the last month. There are 100 beds in this wing of the CRENI.

After the children are out of danger from their medical complications they are moved to Phase 2 to have their malnutrition treated before being discharged.

Another section for new-borns is full to capacity. They are all very tiny. Some are about a month old and weigh about 1.6kgs. At birth, a normal healthy child should be about 2.5kgs. After a month they should weigh much more.

Since the food crisis this wing has always been full, says the doctor. It is because the mothers are undernourished during pregnancy and cannot produce enough milk. So the mothers are feed and nourished and taught how to breastfeed their newborns. When the harvest of 2009 failed, it was a clear sign that a food crisis was on the horizon.

Call for international help
It was finally acknowledged in February this year by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy movement, which overthrew President Tandja.

With the assistance of the United Nations, the new government appealed for international help. However, that help isn’t coming as fast as Ibrahim and other Nigeriens had hoped as humanitarian agencies themselves are in need of financial assistance.

UNICEF appealed for £15 million (US$22 million) in April for emergency nutrition for nearly 400,000 severely malnourished children this year.

It was oversubscribed by £1.5 million. There are another 1.2 million moderately malnourished children. Moderate malnutrition is normally handled by the World Food Programme but they too have funding problems.

UNICEF Niger Representative, Guido Cornale, says that an agreement has just been reached for UNICEF to take on 600,000 children from their sister agency.

UNICEF is now appealing for another £35 million (US$52 million) for this. In addition, UNICEF is also picking up the slack from another international humanitarian organisation which announced that they can no longer finance the operation of seven CRENAS – community health posts that treat severe malnourished children who have no medical complications.

UNICEF has offered to pay the costs to keep these going.

Asked how he wants the outside world to help, Ibrahim replied: "We need food to eat. Our animals need food to eat. Or we will die."

By Terry Ally



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