Erratic rainfall and western financial strife mean improved crisis preparations are being stretched to the limit

In the mid-morning sun, Aminatou Gado takes her place in the queue, where she faces a long wait to have her 14-month-old daughter screened for malnutrition. Having already walked three hours to get to the dusty town of Bambeye, she will probably not leave before 5 p.m. Inside the adobe building dozens of other women, many breastfeeding, sit on the floor, waiting their turn. The test involves wrapping a simple, coloured cardboard strip around the child's upper arm. If it tightens to the red band, the child is severely malnourished; yellow means moderate; and green means the child is eating enough.

‘My child does not have enough to eat'

“My child has fevers and colds, does not have enough to eat and I don't have enough milk,” says Ms. Gado, 25, as her baby, eyes shut, sucks hard on a shrivelled breast. Ms. Gado has two other children after her twins died one month after their birth.

As Niger braces itself for a food emergency after late and erratic rains last year and a surge in food prices, humanitarian agencies are stepping up malnutrition screening so that children receive swift treatment to prevent permanent damage. It is also much less costly.

At the best of times this vast landlocked country — whose estimated 14.7 million people mostly live along a narrow strip of arable land on its southern border — has trouble feeding itself. Even in “non-crisis” years, 300,000 children are treated for malnutrition — 15 per cent of the world total. This year threatens to be particularly severe.

1.3 mn acutely malnourished

Humanitarian organisations estimate that 1.3 million people are suffering from acute malnutrition across the Sahel, a belt of countries from Mauritania and Senegal on the Atlantic to Chad in central Africa, taking in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary, on Sunday announced emergency aid for the Sahel and urged others to step up efforts.

The U.K. is providing therapeutic food for 68,000 children in Chad, Niger and Mali as well as fodder and vaccinations for livestock. “British support will help those in the most immediate danger but other nations must take up the baton to ensure that the international response is fast and effective,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We then need to improve conditions for these people to withstand future droughts.”

This month (January), the EU's top humanitarian official, Kristalina Georgieva, visited Niger and Chad. She announced a doubling of humanitarian aid to €105m for this year, and is pushing for a further €250m for longer-term food security. In Tahoua, eastern Niger, she received a rapturous welcome complete with a rock band and dancers brandishing swords and spears.

‘Race against time'

“This crisis will bite from next month onward, and we are now in a race against time,” said Ms. Georgieva, who has been particularly vocal on the need to act early to prevent the kind of delays that led to thousands of deaths in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Ms. Georgieva and others have praised the Niger government of President Mahamadou Issoufou for appealing for help early in August instead of letting national pride get in the way, unlike his predecessors. The government is building up 90,000 tonnes of food reserves and would like to have 150,000 tonnes.

The question is whether Sahel countries will receive enough help for such measures at a time of financial crisis in the west. EU officials say as much as €500m is needed over the next seven or eight months for the Sahel, where a fifth of the population — 10-12 million people — will have trouble buying food.

As efforts are stepped up to screen children-under-five for malnutrition, adults are also getting help. In the region of Oullam, about an hour and a half's drive from Niger's capital, Niamey, the World Food Programme's food-for-work scheme means families receive grain, vegetables and oil for three months in return for work designed to build up the community's ability to sustain itself.

In Garbey, a village in a parched landscape of rocky soil covered with a thin layer of sand, the men are building a rock wall to channel the next rains, due in June-July, into the reservoir.

Food-for-work scheme

Full as recently as November, the reservoir has shrunk to a few puddles. Determined to extract every last drop, women with pails trudge back and forth for water for their vegetables. The food-for-work programme not only makes the reservoir more effective, but allows the men to stay.

For the first time in years, Saleh Taehirou is in the village instead of going to the Ivory Coast to find work. “I will stay as long as there is food for the family,” said Mr. Taehirou, 38, who has two wives and five children.

Previous work on the reservoir has been put to good use by the 2,233 villagers. Water has allowed many women to grow vegetables in neat, 10 square metre plots. Hani Soumeila, a 49-year-old mother of 12, grows lettuce, potatoes and cabbage. She sells some of the produce to pay for school fees. The water has even enabled the villagers to devote a small plot to tomatoes, still green but of good size, which will fetch a good price in Oullam.

The government has big plans for agriculture, including investing 15 per cent of its budget in farming, and boosting production through better use of fertilisers, drip irrigation techniques and simple water retention measures.

More controversial are plans to build the Kandadji dam on the Niger river to irrigate 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres). But no matter how much it increases food production, such efforts to build resilience will fall short as long as Niger continues to have one of the world's highest population growth rates.

High population growth rate

The population, rising at 3.3 per cent a year, is set to reach 22 million by 2025 unless the birth rate is reduced. Development experts say one of the most effective ways is to keep girls in school longer and delay pregnancy, and the government is preparing a law to make education compulsory until 16 in a country where some marry as young as 13.

The health centre in the village of Bambeye offers family planning services as well as dealing with malnutrition. Development officials have been surprised by the strong demand for long-term contraception.

Imams' support for family planning

Rahiharouna, 38, lies on a gurney as a male nurse injects her upper arm before inserting two capsules under her skin that will prevent her from getting pregnant for three years. The long-term programme, by Medecins du Monde, has enlisted the support of sympathetic imams to persuade men in this predominantly Muslim country that it is acceptable to have more spacing between children.

In the case of Ms. Rahiharouna, who already has five children, her husband had no problem going along with her wishes. “One of my children had malnutrition,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I could feed the others properly and make sure they survive. My husband accepted because he knew life is hard. He accepted it the first time we talked about it.

“The imam agreed that when you have lots of children it is difficult to feed them.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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