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May 17, 2010

Niger is on the brink of food shortages

by Tom Burgis

Millions of people in Niger are at risk of running short of food, relief agencies have warned, as high prices and a lack of rain take their toll on one of the world's poorest countries.

The landlocked west African nation lies at the centre of a food crisis spanning the Sahel, the arid region on the southern fringe of the Sahara.

The United Nations estimates that 7.8m people in Niger could be affected unless donors deploy some $130m (€102m, £88m) of emergency aid immediately. Parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria and central Chad are also at risk.

"All the signs show that we are at a critical moment," said Touré Kalil Hamadoun, who leads the operations of the charity Médecins Sans Frontières in Zinder, a town in southern Niger.

Weekly admissions of malnourished children to MSF's main feeding station in Zinder doubled in the second half of April.

Many emaciated infants have complications including respiratory diseases and diarrhoea. Health centres have seen 56,000 malnourished children this year.

Despite Niger's uranium reserves, most of its 15m people live in poverty. After poor rains last year, the cereal harvest was 31 per cent lower than in 2008, says the World Bank.

Surpluses in the region - much of which forms part of a common market - could make up the shortfall. But some relief officials fear that higher prices are fostering speculation as traders hoard food in the hope of boosting profits.

A government bulletin from mid-April found that prices for staples including millet, sorghum, maize and rice were "at an exceptionally high level", standing between 6 per cent and 17 per cent above the average of the past five years.

Compared with the same month in 2005 - when a plague of locusts contributed to food shortages - prices for millet, sorghum and maize were all higher this April, while the price of imported rice had increased by more than a third.

Food prices in many poor countries have not followed those on international commodity markets and fallen from their peaks in 2008, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation .

The UN body estimated that high prices, falling incomes and increased unemployment had left more than 1bn people undernourished last year - the highest level since 1970.

"Any benefits from falling world cereal prices have been more than offset by the global economic downturn," the FAO found.

Aid workers stress that starvation in Niger will be averted if donors back government efforts with more food and cash.

"There is enough food in the area but the prices are too high," says Johannes Schoors, Niger country director for Care, an aid agency.

During a visit to the region that included Zinder in late April, Sir John Holmes, the UN's senior emergency relief official, said that without structural changes, "it will become increasingly difficult to contain these recurrent crises, which do so much to undermine economic and social progress in the Sahel".

Sir John urged investment in irrigation and measures to prevent the encroachment of the Sahara. These steps would be more effective than periodic emergency appeals.

However, they would also require aid agencies and the UN to work closely with national governments. Niger has been ruled by a military regime since February, when junior officers toppled President Mamadou Tandja.

The junta has promised to return the country to democracy and the regime has acted speedily to respond to the crisis. But much direct budgetary aid remains suspended. Western diplomats said any resumption was highly unlikely until elections were held.

Financial Times

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