Niger: On the front lines of the war against hunger
As a result of severe drought, the 2009 harvest in Niger produced less than a quarter of the country's annual needs. This meant that the hunger gap – the period between harvests – began in April this year, instead of June as is usually the case. Now half of all Nigeriens do not have enough food.
A recent national food security survey found that 7.1 million people, or half the population, suffer from food insecurity, of which 3.3 million suffer from severe food insecurity. Yet another survey found that the nutritional status of children had severely deteriorated; as much as 16.7% are acutely malnourished, far exceeding the high alert levels. As many as 455,000 children were found to be suffering from severe malnutrition, of which 87,000 from acute malnutrition.
Among herders, a report from the Ministry of Animal Resouces indicates that at the end of 2009, the pasture deficit exceeded 16 million tons, or 67% of the national needs. The already precarious position of herders in the regions of Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder has further deteriorated due to the death of animals decimated by lack of food and water. In the region of Maradi, thousands of animals already weakened by hunger were not strong enough to survive the June rains, making herders even more food insecure.
To address the food crisis, Oxfam and its partners have implemented a destocking humanitarian program in the most vulnerable agri-pastoral and pastoral areas. Weakened animals are purchased at above-market prices and then slaughtered. The meat is then distributed to vulnerable households.
The fight to survive
In Tasha Ibrahim, close to Maradi (central-eastern Niger), the plains extend as far as one can see without the slightest vegetation. Last year, the pastoral area of Dakoro suffered from a late start to the rainy season after 40 days of dryness.
And yet Ibrahim Mangari, and those around him, did not worry. This herder, from the village of Tasha Ibrahim, to which he gave his name, expected that the pasture, even if it was less, was going to be enough for their animals. "We didn't think that the situation would become so desperate. There was some pasture after the rainy season."
But a combination of circumstances quickly caused the situation to deteriorate. "As of February, animals from the north, the regions of Tahoua and Agadez, invaded." Ardo Gnalaoudo Amadou, explains. An elderly man of 78, he is the chief of this village with 200 inhabitants. "I had never seen anything like it, even at my age. The animals came from as far as Chad."
"In addition to the rivalry between local and foreign herds, people gathered straw by the cartloads to sell further south." says Djahowa Boukari, a younger herder of 47 years.
Normally, when things are difficult in the pastoral areas, the cattle of this region travel to the south of Niger and to Nigeria. "But last year the pastures were bad even in those areas." explains Mahamadou Diallo, coordinator of AREN, Oxfam's humanitarian programming partner.
As a result, the pastures were eaten up by the end of March. The straw gathered here and there fetched 10 000 F (15,5 €) a bale, with which we couldn't even buy a 50 kg bag of millet (which costs 11 000 F (17 €)). The herders were thus forced to retreat to the Gadabéji, a reserve where their animals could graze during the day, but where they could not stay the night.
At a critical stage
Animals are at a critical stage right now, in the rainy season, the most difficult season for herders. Old pastures have disappeared and new shoots are not yet enough to be eaten. Around the village, the cows try to eat them, but end up eating more sand than fodder. "The luckiest only get diarrhea which helps them to get rid of the earth they've eaten. The sand burns a hole in the stomach of the rest and kills them," explains Ardo Gnalaoudo.
As bad luck rarely comes alone, the first heavy rains killed hundreds of weakened animals. "Fifteen days ago, I lost 13 cows at once," says Alhadi Gnalaoudo. The second killed Sidé Tounaou's only cow and 13 of his sheep.
"We are hanging from our necks. Normally, we live from our animals. They give us milk and we sell some of them at a good price to buy millet. Now, our emaciated animals don't give us any more milk. At the livestock market near Sakabal a cow van be sold for 14000 CFA, (21.5 €). Even the price of a 100 kilogram bag of millet costs double that!" says Ibrahim Mangari.
In the neighboring encampment of the Bougaou brothers, Yaou had taken precautions. He sold his only bull when it was still in good shape and was able to get a good price. With that, he bought 5 bags of millet to feed his family of 15 people and has been able to ensure that they have three meals a day. But the stock has quickly been decimated and the family can barely scrape together two small meals a day. Children are given priority.
Subsidies and destocking
AREN and Oxfam were able to intervene in a timely way. The village has had three subsidised sales of millet and animal feed. The most vulnerable households received food for free and wheat for their animals. Each operation distributed 150 bags of millet and 420 bags of wheat.
At the same time, Oxfam and AREN are doing a "destocking" for animals weakened by the lack of food and water. These animals are bought at an above-market price. This way, the herders earn enough to fulfill their basic needs. The animals are slaughtered and the meat distributed to vulnerable members of the community.
This intervention came at the most difficult period of the year for the herders and their animals. The new shoots growing need several more rains to take root. So within a couple of weeks, the situation for the animals should improve. It will take several months, until the next harvest, for the health of the people to improve.
The last distribution of food and animal feed occurred in early July and the stocks will have deteriorated by the end of the month. The herders of Tasha Ibrahim are now resigned. They are leaving the lives of their animals in the hands of God. "Now we want food for ourselves. For our animals, even the wheat is not sufficient; they need pasture to complete their diet."
Published July 2010.